Thursday, 17 April 2008

Careen and career

Q - It seems that the words "career" or "careen" when used to describe a vehicle or person turning a corner recklessly are used interchangeably--except that "career" sounds kind of cute to my ear. Information please.

The distinction between careen and career is an old Usage Issue that doesn't trouble many people nowadays.

A -The original relevant sense of careen is 'to lean or tip to one side while in motion; sway'. So a car going rapidly around a corner would careen around it. The original relevant sense of career is 'to go at full speed; rush headlong, especially in a reckless way'. A car going rapidly around a corner could also be careering.

The main usage concern is the use of careen to mean 'rush headlong' with no implication of swaying--the use of careen to mean career. This was once criticized, and is still objected to by a few people. Most, however, even the rather conservative types, aren't bothered much by it.

A main reason for this is the difficulty of determining which word is meant; it is usually not possible from context to tell exactly what is being implied. After all, any sort of rapid, reckless motion could certainly involve leaning as well.

This development of careen to mean 'rush headlong' is chiefly found in American English, first recorded in the 1920s. British English still preserves the distinction.

The word career is ultimately from a Latin word for 'course; route'; in English it first meant 'speed on a course'. Careen is from a word meaning 'the side of a ship', and as a verb first meant 'to cause (a ship) to lie on its side, for repairs or painting', which is why the 'leaning' aspect is there.


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