An Irishman's Diary
A reader has e-mailed giving out to me for use of the term “disorienting” earlier this week. “Surely the word is ‘disorientating’?” he says, before suggesting that “orienting, disorienting, and oriented are Americanisms of the worst type”.
Well, reader, I have to disagree. True, the older of my desk dictionaries – an OED, born 1964 – does seem to agree with you, in part. Under D, it mentions only “disorientate”, (although under O, it has both “orient” and “orientate” and treats both verbs equally).
My younger Collins Dictionary (1992), however, has both “orient” and “disorient” as the primary terms. not only that, reader, but allowing that you can also use “orientate”, it adds insult to your injury by explaining that “orientate” means “to orient”.
Yes, you could argue that, like many of its generation, the Collins has been been exposed to too much US television. But on digging further I find that, in fact, the use of “orient” as an English verb goes back centuries, whereas “orientate” only started to appear in the 1950s.
Anyway, I only mention this because, while looking it up, I was reminded of the word’s rather interesting origins. It comes from ecclesiastical architecture, no less. Wherein, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains, orientation was the old practice of building churches “with their axes pointing to the rising sun”.
More specifically, it meant aligning a building – like Newgrange on the winter solstice – so that the sun from the east window would light the altar on the feast-day of the saint for whom the church was named. Thus the axis of a church of St Peter would be at a different angle from a church of St John.
The practice is no longer prevalent, but you may still occasionally hear of churches that, during reconstruction, were “disoriented”. There’s one in Madison Avenue, New York, for example. There, the change of direction was dictated by the likelihood that neighbouring developments to the east might have blocked the light altogether.
If I may digress slightly, the reader’s complaint also reminds me that I had the pleasure a few years ago of spending a night on the Orient Express. The original version of that train ran between Paris and Istanbul, hence its name.
But the one we were on was a mere tourist attraction and went from Rome to Venice. Which, among other inauthenticities, meant that it was not travelling east at all. Somewhat surprisingly, Rome and Venice are on almost the same line of longitude, so our destination was due north.
Also, studying the map as we left Rome, I was puzzled as to how the journey – four hours on regular trains – could take 14 on this one, allowing for dinner on board, entertainment in the bar, a night’s sleep, and breakfast.
When I asked an attendant, he explained the mystery a little apologetically. During the night, while guests slept, the train would turn around, head back to Rome, and after a big loop, resume its journey towards Venice in the morning. So it happened. And sure enough, when we finally reached our destination, we were disoriented in more ways than one.
While I’m at it, I may as well thank the several readers who pointed out that, contrary to my suggestion yesterday, participants in a protest march could hardly “peal off” en route. Well, they could if they were bell-ringers. Or if they were easily amused – emitting peals of laughter as they scattered.
But my excuse is that I live within earshot of several churches, including the bell-ringing cathedrals of Christchurch and St Patrick’s. I hear them pealing off regularly, especially when the wind is oriented. That must have been what I was thinking about yesterday.
This might also be a good time to mention a story another reader shared with me months ago. It was at the time of the Government decision to close the Vatican embassy. But since it also relates to church axes – after a fashion – it has some relevance here.
The story, which may be apocryphal, concerns a visit to Rome in the 1920s by WT Cosgrave. He was there to meet the Pope. And since the shadow of Ireland’s Civil War still hovered, he was accompanied by an armed bodyguard.
During a search at the papal apartments, however, the man’s side-arm was discovered and confiscated. Others in the party berated him on his breach of protocol. Whereupon he pointed to the Swiss Guards nearby and explained his security concerns. “I was afraid of them hoors with the hatchets,” he said.