It’s hard to turn off my editor brain. Whether I read for information or pleasure, typos, punctuation, and usage errors seem to jump off the page. I may share the humorous typo with my Better Half and then post it on Facebook, or shudder in disgust at the lack of grammar acuity in today’s publishing world. Occasionally an error will send me to Google or Merriam-Webster to verify what I think. Is it an error? Or not?
Recently, this “offending” usage appeared on the front page of the newspaper. “… President Donald Trump is awash in headlines as a probe into Russian election meddling seems to have careered out of control.” I snorted. “Careened, it should be careened,” I muttered. And then decided to check it.
Turns out, USA Today got it right. I’ve since learned the two words are frequently confused. The meaning I most often associate with career–the course of one’s life or profession–is not the original 16th-century definition. The Middle French word referred to running a course—usually at full speed—and that is still an accepted use today. In a combination of the two concepts, the word careerist refers to a person who is committed to climbing the corporate ladder as quickly as possible. A less familiar meaning refers to a short gallop. Career conveys forward movement and speed.
Careen also comes from the Middle French, from about the same era. But it means to turn a ship on its side for repair or cleaning. The intransitive form of the verb (the form that doesn’t take a direct object) is the source of the confused usage. It conveys the idea of rushing headlong. Easy to see how that could be confused with the original and continued meaning of career.
To keep it simple, remember this. Career means to move rapidly. Careen means to lurch from side to side. Click To Tweet Speed is often involved here, too, but the direction is erratic, not straightforward.
Neither term should be confused with carom (or carrom). Carom relates to a game that predates both career and careen—billiards. It is an abbreviated form of carombole, which in both French and Spanish meant, “the red ball in billiards.” Perhaps you’re old enough to remember your grandmother’s carom board–a tabletop board game similar to pool or billiards. In any of these pocket games, players gain an edge by caroming–hitting the cue ball in such a way that it strikes two or three other balls causing one or more of them to ricochet into one of the pockets.
My attempts at pool playing have more closely resembled a ship’s careening. The cue ball will miss its target and wobble into a pocket. So, I’m not a pool player. But now I do know the difference now between career and careen.
*For clarification on other confusables as well as additional grammar, punctuation, and word usage tips, I recommend C.S. Lakin’s Say What: The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage. Full disclosure – I contributed several of the items.