Two accidents, two verbs:

In New Jersey, “The car careened down the street and smashed into several parked cars before coming to a stop.”

In Florida, “A Ford Explorer careered out of control, hitting the pedestrian on the sidewalk before smashing into a utility pole.”

If you’ve never heard “career” used that way, you’re probably young.

“Career” as a verb traces to 1594, The Oxford English Dictionary says, meaning “To take a short gallop, to ‘pass a career’; to charge (at a tournament); to turn this way and that in running (said of a horse).” In 1830, it took on the meaning “to move swiftly over” something, such as a street.

For many people, the verb “careen” evokes the image of a vehicle swerving from side to side, out of control, often at high speed. Indeed, “careen” is a sailing term to mean “to heel over,” usually involving a vessel turning completely on its side. But many writers also use it to mean simply “out of control,” regardless of whether there’s any side-to-side movement. That’s what gets some people’s knickers in a twist, because, they argue, a car hurtling down a road would have to be on two wheels to truly “careen.” If it’s just racing, it “careers.”

The OED says the use of “careen” to mean “To rush headlong, to hurtle, esp. with an unsteady motion” first appeared in 1923, and is chiefly an American usage. The British, it seems, still “career” with abandon.

“Since the early 20th century,” Bryan A. Garner writes in his Modern American Usage, American English “has tried to make careen do the job of career, as by saying that a car careened down the street.” It’s succeeding, apparently because so many Americans don’t want that kind of career: Stylebooks that used to advise writers to use “career” now are mute.

Of the major style guides, only The Chicago Manual of Style still mentions it: “The word career’s career as a verb meaning ‘to go full speed’ may be about over. Its duties have been assumed by careen (‘to tip to one side while moving’), even though nothing in that verb’s definition denotes high speed. Still, careful writers recognize the distinction.”

Garner’s has a good explanation why that is so: “It’s understandable why most people aren’t comfortable with this verbal usage of career. The word derived from a Latin term for road orpath, and later denoted a racetrack, but today people think of it as only a noun: the path of a life’s work.” Garner’s lists “careen in the sense ‘to move swervingly or lurchingly’” at Stage 4 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, the equivalent of a traffic warning. Still, Garner’s says, “the most careful writers reserve career for this use.”

They’re probably also the ones who don’t get into accidents.

 

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years.