Autumn is the time that schools start their new academic year, which means that every August we have inductions for the new incoming faculty at school. Orientations.
Every time I hear that word, orientation, my mind wanders off to the ethereal world of etymology and semantic shift. I’m a logophile and orientation is one of my biggest trigger words.
Orient (v)- The act or process of orienting or the state of being oriented. Position or positioning with relation to the points of the compass or other specific directions. The adjustment or alignment of oneself or one’s ideas to surroundings or circumstances.
Basically, to orient one’s self means to know where you are locationally or otherwise. But why “orient”? Why that particular word?
You would probably never guess it was Chaucer in the 14th century. He used Orient to describe lands east. This is why the east became oriental while the west became occidental. In the 1700s orient evolved (or corrupted?) into meaning to position a thing or a person to face the east.
Quite literally, the verb to orient yourself evolved from the fact that if you were able to identify which direction was east (understand where the Orient was), then you would be able to surmise where you were in relation to everything else in the world.
Eventually the definition’s compass-direction aspect extrapolated out to include all ways of knowing where you are locationally and situationally.
How many other words are hiding secret origins?
On my first visit to England I was shocked to hear people profess how gorgeous certain foods were. Having only ever related that word with physical beauty, I had completely overlooked the obvious. Something that is gorgeous is something you want to gorge yourself on. Brits were using the word as originally and etymologically intended.
That made me start examining other familiar words for corruptions and semantic shift.
The most obvious were the victims of auto-antonymy, when a word’s original, literal meaning takes on its connotative opposite. How often do we say things are terrific or fantastic if they are things that please us? Well, terrific comes from terrifying. Fantastic comes from fantasy (the unbelievable/unreal). And that shift slices both ways. Awful didn’t always imply something negative, it meant something that inspired awe.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Pay close attention to the words you use. If you are observant enough, they may well surprise you.