The Grammarphobia Blog

“Career” vs. “careen”

Q: One of my bugbears is the word pair “careen” and “career,” particularly in the meaning of “lurch.” I learned in school that “careen” had the meaning “lurch,” among others. If a vehicle or person veered wildly out of the prescribed route, the word “careen” described what had happened. I now hear and read, however, the word “career” being used in that sense, as in, “The car careered off the highway.” While I have not taken the time to find examples, I believe that The New York Times now uses “career” in the sense of “lurch.” Do you have any background on this issue? Thanks for any information.

A: Historically, to “careen” means to tilt or tip over and to “career” means to rush, perhaps recklessly. This is a distinction that every copy editor in the United States knows by rote, but also one that nobody BUT a copy editor ever observes.

In practice, most people use “careen” to describe a vehicle lurching around out of control. Copy editors always change this to “career,” which understandably looks very odd to the ordinary reader. Dictionaries of course reflect common usage, which is why they almost unanimously accept interchangeable meanings for these words. Many stylebooks for the lay reader, including Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, still make the old distinction and recommend “careering out of control,” not “careening.” The newest edition of the New York Times Stylebook also continues to maintain the distinction.

When I wrote my book “Woe Is I,” I deliberately omitted “careen-vs.-career” from my chapter on commonly confused words, because I felt that it had become almost pedantic to insist on a distinction that most people and dictionaries no longer recognize.