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July 12th, 2006

Conversate / commentate and orientate / mobulate

by Barbara Wallraff

Kathryn Holmstrom, of Brooklyn, Mich., writes: “I was stranded in an airport watching ‘Judge Judy’ (captive audience) when one of the plaintiffs used the sentence ‘I dreamed they were conversating about me.’ Worse, my 33-year-old son used ‘conversating’ a few weeks later. Is this a new word?”

Dear Kathryn: It’s not quite new, and it’s not quite a word. It’s dialect -- originally Southern and black but spreading into general use, as you’ve noticed. Popular music may be responsible: “Conversate” comes up in rap lyrics, and the R & B artist Case made it the title of a 2001 song.

All the same, many language authorities would second your objection to the word. One of them is Garrard McClendon, the author of “Ax or Ask? The African American Guide to Better English.” He recently included “conversate” -- along with “fixin’ to,” “gonna,” “kennygarden” and others -- in a list of words he said it “frustrates” him to hear. “Speaking with good diction,” McClendon says, “is not selling out; it’s gaining clout.” Well-spoken people don’t “conversate” -- they “converse” or “talk” with one another.

Michael Zelek, of Canton, Mich., writes: “What’s with the addition of ‘-ate’ to the end of verbs? I hear this all the time on TV. An example: ‘I’d like to commentate on that subject.’ Another: ‘He needs to orientate himself to the much larger left field at Comerica Park.’ Do these speakers feel the longer form sounds better? Is there a new mandate to contemplate? Please commentate!”

Dear Michael: It’s true that “conversate” isn’t the only not-quite-word we might complain about. But most dictionaries treat both “commentate” and “orientate” as standard. I can see the point of “commentate.” It means something different from “comment” -- as this quote, published in the Daily News of Los Angeles late last month, shows: “They (ESPN) are basically saying to the soccer community that anyone can commentate on soccer since nobody cares anyway.” People who “comment” keep it short. People who “commentate” are usually experts, and they tend to go on for a while. Only when “commentate” is nothing more than a puffed-up synonym for “comment” -- as it seems to be in your example sentence -- is it obnoxious.

As for “orientate,” I have no idea what it’s good for. Most dictionaries give “orient” as one of the definitions for this verb. I’d like to think that’s meant as a hint that “orient,” being older and shorter, is a better word choice. I wish dictionaries would come out and say so, though -- the way Garner’s Modern American Usage does when it declares “orientate” a “needless variant of ‘orient.’”

David McCune, of Deansville, Wis., writes: “Inspired by those around me in traffic (but not wishing to appear totally ill-mannered even with my car windows safely rolled up), I have coined the verbal instruction ‘Mobulate!’ This indicates that people should accelerate and pay more attention to their driving and less to obstructing my rightful path. Do you think it has potential to promote civility on our highways?”

Dear David: Not if the driver you try it out on happens to be Michael Zelek, Kathryn Holmstrom or anyone else who feels the way they do about new “-ate” verbs. If your word does promote civility, it will do so only because the people you’re yelling at don’t understand it, so they don’t get mad.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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