Q: My brother claims that a reckless driver “careens” off the road, but I think the proper word is “career”? Who’s right—or does anybody care?
A: The answer depends on whether the accident happens in Devonshire or Dubuque. A British speaker is more likely to use “career,” while an American would choose “careen.” Both are acceptable.
This wasn’t always the case, however. Until the early 20th century, a traditional distinction was made between the two verbs. “Career” meant to rush recklessly and out of control, while “careen” meant to tilt, tip, or heel over (as a ship might do).
But as we wrote in 2006, “careen” is now broadly accepted—in common usage as well as in standard dictionaries—for both senses. We felt then (and still do) that the old distinction between “career” and “careen” had become obsolete in American usage.
In fact, we’ve found examples of the hurtling sense of “careen” in American publications dating from the 1860s, though the usage didn’t become widespread until the 1920s.
As we pointed out in our post, some usage guides were still insisting on the traditional distinction even then. But they’ve since changed their positions.
For example, the 1999 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage included an entry for “careen, career,” recommending that “precise writers” recognize the difference. But that entry disappeared with the manual’s fifth edition, published in 2015.
Nowadays the Times uses both verbs (but mostly “careen”) in the high-speed sense. Here are recent examples of each: “A Greyhound driver who authorities say fell asleep before the bus careened off a road in the Utah desert …” (May 15, 2019). “The vehicles careered through a guardrail into southbound traffic” (Jan. 3, 2019).
We also noted in 2006 that Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage upheld the old distinction and recommended “careering out of control,” not “careening.” But the fourth edition, published in 2016 as Garner’s Modern English Usage, says that American English “has made careen do the job of career, as by saying that a car careened down the street.”
We checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries, and all of them currently accept both “career” and “careen” in the sense of moving fast and without control. Six of them (one American, five British) label “careen” as mainly a North American usage.
While some dictionaries simply accept “career” and “careen” as synonyms, a few say that the movement implied in “careen” includes a lurching, swaying, or otherwise erratic course. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has this usage note:
“Both words may be used to mean ‘to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner.’ A car, for instance, may either careen or career. Some usage guides hold, however, that the car is only careening if there is side-to-side motion, as careen has other meanings related to movement, among which is ‘to sway from side to side.’ ”
We would argue, however, that back-and-forth movement isn’t necessary and that a vehicle can also “careen” by hurtling in a straight line. The linguist and lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield apparently agrees.
In Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Butterfield writes that because the original nautical meaning was to lean over or tilt, the verb “carries a residual notion in non-nautical contexts of leaning or tilting.”
But he continues: “In a separate modern development in American English, since the 1920s, careen has rapidly become standard in the sense ‘to rush headlong, to hurtle, especially with an unsteady motion,’ i.e. the speed is more central to the meaning than any latent notion of leaning or tilting.”
Butterfield adds that this modern meaning of “careen” is found “much less often in British English, the broad sense being often covered by the verb career.”
Etymologically, “career” and “careen” are unrelated, though both have roots in classical Latin. “Career” can be traced to carrus (wagon) and “careen” to carīna (keel of a boat).
Both words first entered English as nouns in the 16th century, when they were borrowed from French. The first to appear in English writing was “career,” which the OED says was first recorded in 1534 when it meant a “course” (as in the path of a star through the heavens) or a “running” (as in terms of horsemanship like “full career” for full gallop).
The French source was carrière (racecourse), a noun acquired from the late Latin carrāria, which the OED says meant “carriage-road” or simply “road,” a derivation of carrus (wagon).
Later in the 16th century, the English noun “career” was also recorded in the sense of a race track. It wasn’t until the 19th century that “career” developed the sense of a person’s path in life, the OED says, and it didn’t specifically mean “a course of professional life or employment” until the 20th.
This is Oxford’s first example of the modern meaning: “The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert” (Literary Digest, June 25, 1927). There “career” is an attributive noun—that is, a noun used as a modifier.
As for the verb “career,” it was first recorded in 1594, the OED says, when it meant “to take a short gallop” or “to charge.” This sense led in the 1600s to a related sense that the OED calls a “transferred and figurative” meaning: “to gallop, run or move at full speed.”
That’s the latest sense of the verb for which the OED has citations, and they extend only to 1856. This one is a representative example: “The little Julian was careering about the room for the amusement of his infant friend” (from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Peveril of the Peak, 1823).
Moving on to “careen,” it was first recorded in 1591 as a noun meaning “the position of a ship laid or heeled over on one side,” as in the expression “on (upon) the careen,” Oxford says.
Shortly afterward, in 1600, “careen” appeared as a verb meaning to turn a ship on one side for cleaning, repairs, etc. And in the 18th century it came to mean to tilt or lean over, first in the seagoing sense and later more generally (as when vehicles or buildings were said to “careen”—that is, tip or fall sideways).
The modern meaning of “careen” is defined in the OED as “to rush headlong, to hurtle, esp. with an unsteady motion,” and it’s labeled “chiefly US.”
As we mentioned above, we’ve found “careen” used this way in American publications dating back to the 1860s.
The earliest example we’ve spotted is from an unsigned short story in a California newspaper. In the relevant passage, a character reveals himself by flinging aside his disguise:
“Off flew the bottle-green overcoat—away went the red wig—across the room careened the green spectacles.” (“The Lover’s Masquerade,” Red Bluff Independent, Feb. 25, 1869.)
We’ll give a few more examples from subsequent decades, just to show that the 1869 usage wasn’t an oddity:
“The horse careened down the avenue and broke the wagon to pieces by collision with a wood team.” (Indianapolis News, Oct. 31, 1876.)
“The sleepers [sleeping cars] on the eastern express from Chicago, due at Minneapolis at 7:30 this morning, were thrown from the track at Mendota and careened down a sixty foot embankment to the river.” (Bismarck Tribune, Dakota Territory, Jan. 2, 1880.)
“After a dozen spirits [of the departed] had come from the cabinet, careened through the atmosphere and vanished into space, a particularly depressing scene took place.” (From an article about a seance, Salt Lake Herald, April 24, 1892.)
The OED’s earliest example is from an early 20th-century science fiction novel describing the motion of a spaceship: “The cruiser ‘Vanator’ careened through the tempest.” (From The Chessmen of Mars, 1923, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.)
A couple of decades later the American linguist Dwight L. Bolinger wrote: “Careen of recent years has come to mean ‘to rush headlong,’ or ‘hurtle,’ doubtless because of its resemblance to career—but this is rather an example of displacement than of pairing, for one rarely reads or hears the word career nowadays.” (From “Word Affinities,” a paper published in the journal American Speech, February 1940.)