Careening and careering

Writers have used the word careen for years to describe something that is moving fast and recklessly. For years, some editors have tried to catch and stop such use, pointing out that careen means to lurch or weave from side to side. Career, they said, is the word to use when you mean a headlong rush. Bryan Garner calls attention to this distinction in his “Dictionary of Modern American Usage,” and Bill Bryson has an entry on careen and career in “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words.”

But careen as a word to describe a wild forward rush is in wide use now, as in this sentence from Tuesday’s front page:

About 14 months ago, a drunken Maready stole a car, fled deputies and careened up a country road at 70 mph before slamming into Stokes’ pickup truck, killing her.

Was the car weaving from side to side, tilting dangerously, as a ship in a stiff wind? Or was it going very fast but staying more or less in a straight line? What image does that word evoke for readers?

A few times, when I have changed careen to career, a writer has complained that career is just too strange a word. That’s a reasonable argument sometimes. It’s better to be understood. If readers now understand that careen means a reckless, fast movement forward, then maybe that is the word to use. As Paul Brians writes on his Common Errors in English site, if the meaning is not clear, you are probably safe in using either word.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.