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Give up: careen/career

I happened to pick up the late John Bremner’s Words on Words and noticed the entry on CAREEN / CAREER / CAROM. As recently as 1980, a precisionist would observe these distinctions:

Careen, from the Latin carina, ship’s keel, means to move from side to side. Those of you who have read naval novels will remember that in the absence of a dry dock, a wooden ship could be careened, tilted on its side, on a beach to permit repairs and the removal or barnacles.

Career, Mr. Bremner pointed out, is etymologically distinct, deriving from the French carrière, racecourse, and means to move at high speed—to hurtle.

Carom is to strike and rebound, from the French carambole, the red ball in billiards.

But twentieth-century American English determinedly made careen do the work of career, as Wilson Follett was saying as far back as 1966. Today, the old “correct” usage career looks odd to many, perhaps most, readers and, the shades of John Bremner and Theodore M. Bernstein notwithstanding, should probably be retired if you haven’t done so already.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:51 PM | | Comments (10)


I think we'll see to career as a verb -- but in the biz or help wanted sections, like to grow a business. Ugh.

I graduated from college (preposition mandatory in those days) three years shy of your 1980 mark and was taught that "careen" means to hurtle forward, while weaving from side to side, quite possibly with a bit of rebounding involved, or at least some side-swiping....a conflation of all three words. With a dash of "pell-mell" thrown in to give that side-to-side motion an erratic, dangerous quality.

Careen is a grand word and, since few of us need to beach boats for barnacle removal these days, I'm glad that it has evolved in a fashion that allows wider usage.

As in my tendentious concern that the Cafe Hon controversy is careening down an ever more treacherous road. Simple citizen outrage over misappropriation of a word has led to a restraining order (temporary, thus far) and a worrisome challenge to free speech. As someone who has built your career with all deliberate speed on the importance of words, in a medium that's a beacon for the right to do so unfettered, you might want weigh in on the latest news from the Hon front.

Seems at least as relevant to your world order -- and ours -- as 18th century French billiard terminology. Marchons and all that, Professor.

Some things about the latest Hontroversy development:

1. I'm repeatedly reminded by readers that it is a tedious subject, more so even than my usual posts.

2. I have no information on the particulars of Denise Whiting's complaint against Steven Akers. So I can't comment on them.

3. I have absolutely no information on Mr. Akers's side of the dispute. So I certainly can't comment on that.

4. If a judge finds that Mr. Akers has been guilty of harassment, then there will be some trammeling of his speech. If a judge finds that Ms. Whiting has overreached, as she appears to have some tendency to do, then Mr. Akers will not be silenced. It will be nice to have the matter addressed dispassionately byt he court.

My career in journalism was careened by a management shake-up, but after caroming off some obstacles, I careered ahead no worse for wear.

Andrea, get a life. Many of us have little-to-no interest in the picyune details of Hampdem life.

Since "career" isn't needed as a noun anymore, there being hardly any, perhaps it needs to be kept as a verb to survive at all.

(For once I can make out the letters I'm supposed to type in. Half the time they are indecipherable.)

As much as I agree with your conclusion, there's a part of me that is saddened by the thought of losing more shades of meaning from words in the English vocabulary...

Please permit me:
1. Lucky for me, you seem to quite enjoy staring down the majority.
2. Lucky for you, this paper has published Ms. Whiting's petition to the court, in which "the particulars" are fully captured.
3. Many of Mr. Akers' activities and statements have entered the record over the months in a variety of media, most especially the Facebook page "Boycott Cafe Hon."
4. Courts, whatever their judgments (which are not infallible), are not a substitute for reasoned discussion among citizens.

My apologies to all for being tiresome, but Mr. McIntyre, you have a special opportunity here and you could do some good.

And Eve, as namesake of the aboriginal woman, you might want to broaden your own life to include some Hampden hons (or their local iteration, if you don't live in these parts). Trivial as their concerns seem to you, your sisters' struggles against being stereotyped and commercialized actually are relevant to all women.

But no more, unless others take this up. I don't want to sully anyone's cyber-meanderings through lovely linguistic meadows.

Andrea, I will only say that I have met Eve in the real world, and she is a very real person with very real concerns. I personally wouldn't dream of slamming someone I do not know in the slightest.

I think we should all lighten up.

Well, if we are burying "career" as a verb, I think Stephen Sondheim's use of it in a lyric for "Follies" (1971) serves as an epitaph:

Then you career from career to career

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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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