Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 87: Going Downhill

This week's episode is inspired by a question from Bill, a listener in St Charles, Illinois. Bill writes:
"I'm curious about the word used to describe a runaway vehicle or other out-of-control object. Is it 'careening' down the hill or is it 'careering'? I see it in print both ways and wonder which is preferred."

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the word career as a noun means one's professional or occupational progress through life. We're all pretty clear on that definition.

As a verb, however, Webster's New World College Dictionary defines to career as "to move at full speed; to rush wildly." It even defines the phrase in full career as an expression meaning "at full speed."

Both the noun and the verb career come from a Latin word carraria, which means a carriage or carriage road.

Latin also gave us the word careen. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, careen comes from the Latin carina, which means a ship's keel. In English, the verb to careen has a primarily nautical meaning. Webster's New World College Dictionary defines the verb careen as the act of turning a ship on its side for cleaning and repair. Intransitively, the verb careen refers to when a boat leans or tilts on its keel, as in:
The sailboats in the regatta careened sharply on the downwind run.

Fowler's Modern English Usage reports that in the 1920s, the word careen started to take on a new, non-nautical meaning. Webster's New World College Dictionary defines this newer sense of careen as "to lurch from side to side, especially while moving rapidly." For example:
The van careened across the road, almost running into the ditch.

The Oxford Dictionary of Current English takes this second definition of careen one step further, saying that careen means to move in an uncontrolled way—and it even lists career as a synonym.

So to go back to Bill's question, it appears that the verbs to careen and to career can be used interchangeably. Careen carries a bit more suggestion of side-to-side movement, while career denotes an element of speed. But in the end, both are colorful words that vividly describe a situation where one is moving swiftly and perhaps recklessly.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Fowler's Modern English Usage, Webster's New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition).

Music from this episode: "Bicycle Race" by Queen and "Ready for the Floor" by Hot Chip.

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