The verbs career and careen are easily confused — and they have been often enough that their meanings may merge sometime in the near future. But for now, they mean different things.
Career comes from a Latin word meaning “road or path.” As a noun, the career we use most is the path one’s professional life takes. But the word has also historically been used to describe the path itself (“the career of the sun across the sky”) and of the speed along that path (“hurtling at full career”).
As for the verb, it’s important to keep “road or path” in mind: To career is to move at top speed along a path. When you’re careering, the movement is along a path — essentially forward or backward. Though career often implies wild or uncontrolled speed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the vehicle’s direction is out of control.
"…the pencil-seller’s dog, spooked by the explosion, leaping under my wheels as I careered out of Longwood on my way to you…” —Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World”
Careen started life as a nautical term to describe a water vessel’s heeling over (“The boat careened as the waves crashed over it.”) or driving a boat onto a beach and turning it on its side, often to effect repairs. Imagine, for example, the S.S. Minnow careened on the beach on Gilligan’s Island, a gaping hole in its hull.
That’s a good image to hold in your mind, because the word careen comes from the Medieval French carine — the submerged part of a ship’s hull. When a boat is careened, that part of it is exposed.
But careening is available to land lubbers, too. If you’re careening, you’re moving from side to side — lurching, wobbling, or swaying — not forward along a path, like careering.
"They sped off, sometimes the wrong way, careening into trees, light poles and other cars.”
Careering and careening
It isn’t difficult to imagine careering and careening occurring simultaneously. Those trailers you can rent at, say, U-Haul to tow along behind your vehicle often list a 45 MPH maximum speed. Any faster, and you might lose control of the trailer. Someone who disregards that warning might career down the highway at 80 mph, while the trailer careens along behind it, frightening the other drivers.
Sadly (in my opinion), more and more, careen is employed to do the job of career, as any web search for careenedwill reveal. Perhaps we’re too uncomfortable with the idea that our career could be moving at a speed beyond our control? Regardless of the reason, career as a verb may be an endangered species.
But if you are going to maintain the difference — and you should — here’s a hint to help you remember: Drivers like Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, and Danica Patrick have made a career out of careering around a track.
Header photo via Tione Garnier, Unsplash.
This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, March 28, 2018.