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Snap decision

The copy desk changed careen to career over the writer’s objections this week, with the support of one of my arbitrary rulings.

The authorities are in agreement that careen originally meant to turn a ship on its side to clean, caulk or repair it. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage mentions an early citation from Hakluyt in 1600.

Disagreement comes over the development in American English over the past century or so of the use of careen in the place of career, which means to move at high speed, usually recklessly, or to hurtle. Career derives ultimately from the Latin currere, to run, and cursus, or course, as in racecourse.

And there the authorities diverge. Garner’s Modern American Usage insists that careful writers will maintain the distinction. Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words chimes in with agreement.

The New Fowler’s, revised by the late lexicographer Robert Burchfield, says flatly that careen is standard American usage for “to rush headlong.” And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says (rather snarkily, I thought) that if you want to insist on the traditional distinction, you might want to move to Britain.

The American Heritage College Dictionary, usually helpful with advice on questions of usage, dodges the issue in distinguishing among career, careen and carom, by saying that careen is associated with lurching or swerving, as “influenced by career.”

But I don’t get to indulge in mealy-mouthed equivocations; I have to make rulings. And so, with some hesitation, I came down on career for moving recklessly at speed. And so shall The Sun say, on the sporadic occasions on which anyone on the staff pays attention to those rulings, or until I am overruled or persuaded to reverse the decision.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:37 PM | | Comments (4)


John, with respect, I would wager that about 99% of your readers assumed "careered" was a typo, scratched their heads for a moment, and then may or may not have continued reading the story. The best argument against this moldy old shibboleth is that 21st-century American newspapers should be written and edited in 21st-century American English. ... As a reader, I don't want to have to pick my way word-by-word through dense Elizabethan prose just to find out how the City Council voted last night.

Well, I'm always open to persuasion. Perhaps it's time for us to move up to Jacobean prose.

This blog entry is the first time I've ever heard of "career" as a verb.

Personally my career has been pretty much a careen anyway.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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