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Career versus careen

Q From Wendy Magnall: Career appeared in two quotations in your issue of 6 April, the first about bathwater sent “careering” away, and later in the more common sense of a long-term occupation. The first seems related to careen, and I have even read criticism of the use of career in its place. I wonder if you might sort out the two words and explain the strange relationship between them.

A I’m with the traditionalists on this one, because I learned the meaning of both words umpty-flump years before the arguments began. Careen has always had the sole meaning for me of turning a ship on its side for cleaning, caulking or repair (it comes from the Latin carina, a keel). Career meant a person’s employment path through life, with a side sense of rapid and uncontrolled headlong movement.

The pair has provoked dissent in the US in the past half century or so, most of it disapproving of the way that careen has to a large extent usurped career in the movement sense.

Career began life in English linked to medieval knights competing in tournaments. This involved riding horses at great speed in short bursts while nimbly changing direction. To describe this, English writers borrowed the old French carrière, a racecourse. It’s from late Latin carraria via, a carriage-road, from carrus, a wagon (the source of our car and cargo). So the rapid movement sense is the original one. By the seventeenth century it had started to be applied figuratively to any continuous course of action, and by the early nineteenth century was being used for the course of a person’s professional life or employment.

The traditional sense of careen does also imply movement, though only from side to side. It was applied by obvious extension to a ship heeling to one side through the action of wind or wave. It was also used for vehicles on land rocking from side to side or even overturning:

They were attempting to drive faster than Mike Binder and in making a short turn at the Edgarton the buggy careened so as to throw them all out on the stone there.

Appleton Post-Crescent (Wisconsin), 17 Aug. 1861.

Accidents involving vehicles tipping over would often have been due to excessive speed. This would have confused people about the true meaning of careen, though the close similarity in spelling between it and career probably helped. The growth of the sense of speeding out of control is for good reason connected to the introduction of the motor car:

Pennell did everything in human power to regain control of the vehicle where it careened toward the chasm. The brakes were tightly set, the power indicator pointed “reverse” and the track of the wheels in the soft earth on the ridge between the street pavement and the quarry showed that the wheels were turning backward when the ponderous machine sped forward to destruction.

The Lowell Sun (Massachusetts), 12 Mar. 1903.

By the middle 1960s, when the critics started to object to careen in this sense, the shift had already gone too far to be influenced by rational argument and has since become accepted in the US by many authorities — a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary says that “it is by now so well established that it would be pedantic to object to it.” It’s notable that you have come across criticism of career for an uncontrolled movement — it confirms that for many Americans the shift is now complete, with careen the only word to use in that sense and with career restricted to employment.

Reference works sometimes say that this careen usage is limited to the US, but it has now spread to other English-speaking countries, including the UK:

Candy-coloured visuals burst with colour and detail, and the 3D version makes excellent use of the eye-popping format in stomach-churning action sequences that careen up and down undulating race tracks at dizzying speed.

Bristol Evening Post, 8 Feb. 2013.

Even if you use career only in the occupational sense, you will now be able to understand this story told by the British comedian Tommy Cooper:

I was driving along, and my boss rang up, and he said “You’ve been promoted.” And I swerved. And then he rang up a second time and said “You’ve been promoted again.” And I swerved again. He rang up a third time and said “You’re managing director.” And I went into a tree. And a policeman came up and said “What happened to you?” And I said “I careered off the road.”

Page created 27 Apr. 2013
Last updated 11 May 2013

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Last modified: 11 May 2013.