The verb orientate, formed via backformation from the noun orientation, is a variant of orient common in the U.K. (but despite what some reference books say, the word is not more common in 21st-century British English than orient, which prevails by a large margin).1 It is especially common in its past-participial form, where it tends to appear in phrasal adjectives such as results-orientated and family-orientated, where orientated (as well as oriented when it appears in similar phrasal adjectives) is roughly synonymous with focused.
The existence of orientate is a common peeve among people who dislike clunky word forms, but the word is older and better established than is often assumed. Historical searches of Google’s Books index reveal instances of orientate from as long ago as the early 18th century,2 and the word has only grown in prevalence through subsequent centuries.3 It appears in all sorts of writing—in edited and unedited writing, in casual and formal writing, and in news writing, science writing, legal writing, and elsewhere—so it is likely here to stay whether we like it or not.
Besides, orientate does bear one sense that makes it different from orient—namely, to face in a specified direction. Some dictionaries also list this sense under orient,4 but orient is much more often use to mean to get one’s bearings, which doesn’t necessarily involve facing in a specified direction. It is true that orientate is often used in place of orient in the latter’s main sense, but some U.K. English speakers do differentiate between the two.
Much of the above also applies to the negative form, disorientate, which like its antonym is most common in the U.K., is surprisingly old, and is widely decried.
In these examples, which were admittedly not easy to find, the use of orientate is easier to justify because it means to face in a specified direction:
A large Renaissance church, very uninteresting, with nave, aisles, and lateral chapels, and square- ended chancel, orientating to the north-west. [Sketches of continental ecclesiology, Benj Webb (1848)]
And with sixteen smaller engines to orientate themselves precisely in any direction, Snoopy was precisely crafted for its LOR mission. [BBC]
This meant that his design was orientated north-south rather than east-west, as tradition would dictate. [Telegraph]
In these examples, orientate would bear replacement with orient:
Chile has such an open, export-orientated economy, it is well aware of how vulnerable it is to whatever else is going on in the world. [Financial Times]
To orientate us, the early scenes briefly visited 2003 and George W Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his sons. [Telegraph]
Get some air, orientate yourself with the views and be assured you’re alive, if a little sleepy. [New Zealand Herald]
But, once again, orientate is an accepted variant of orient and is not wrong.
1. Orientate in the OED (subscription required) ↩
2. Search of “orientate” in Google’s Books index, limited to 1850 and earlier ↩
3. Google ngram graphing “orientated” in British books and journals, 1800-2000 ↩
4. Orient in the American Heritage Dictionary ↩