In the episode The Rebel Flesh, Matt Smith's Doctor—rattling off a typically fast-paced revelatory speech—used the word disorientated. As a British expat who has lived in the U.S. now for six years, I'd all but forgotten that such a pronunciation/spelling even existed, due entirely to one fact: Americans almost always spell it disoriented.
For evidence of this, we need only look at the Google Ngrams below. The first Ngram highlights the comparative usage of the words disorient (blue) and disorientate (red) within 200 years of British English texts. The second highlights the comparative usage of the same words within 200 years of American English texts (same colour coding).
British English (BrE)
American English (AmE)
As you can see, there is a marked difference in usage between British English and American English. The disorientate variant, while minimally present in American English, nonetheless plays second fiddle to disorient. In British English, the same cannot be so definitively stated; Brits are almost as likely to say disorientate as they are disorient.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this is that the Americans—in leaning heavily toward the simpler spelling—may very well be leaning toward the original English spelling (note: some suggest that both spellings may have emerged at approximately the same time). Indeed, those with a keen eye for detail will notice from the Ngrams that the disorientate variant didn't even exist in print media before the turn of the twentieth century. In contrast, the word disorient entered the language in around the mid-1600s.
And so, onto the burning question—which variant is correct? Well, as is often the case, the simple answer is that both are correct. The OED, like most standard dictionaries, suggests either spelling is permissible. However, were I to give my own personal preference, I'd probably favour the simpler spelling/pronunciation; the relatively few syllables in disoriented are less likely to leave me (and my American counterparts) feeling... err... disorientated.
Which do you prefer to use? "Disorientate" or "disorient"? Let us know in the comments below.
This article was written by Laurence Brown. Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia. He is Editor-in-chief of Lost in the Pond and loves nothing more than to share these articles with anglophiles, expats, and other interested parties on social media. Follow Lost in the Pond on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.