A reader asks:
Could you clarify whether a car “careens” or “careers” off the road? Are both usable?
The original meanings of the words are quite different. Career stems from horse-related activities, and careen has a nautical origin.
Career functions as a noun and as a verb. The noun has changed more over time than the verb and deserves a post all to itself.
The verb career has meant “to gallop, run or move at full speed” since the seventeenth century. Dr. Johnson defined the verb as “running with swift motion.” Nowadays, the verb career is used mostly to describe the behavior of motor vehicles.
But it seems most likely to me that Adge had fallen asleep at the wheel before he careered off the road.
The 51-year-old truck driver was hospitalized after his truck careered off the expressway and through a bus shelter under the elevated train tracks.
At least two people were killed and more than 40 were hospitalized after a charter bus careered off a Texas highway Thursday, the authorities said.
Career is also used figuratively.
While he’s careered off course a few times, the last two decades have seen him churning out album after album of acclaimed and successful blues.
Originally, careen had nothing to do with precipitate speed or speed of any kind.
Careen began as a nautical term meaning, “to turn a ship over on one side for cleaning, caulking, or repairing.”
As a noun, careen referred to the position of a ship laid on one side or tilted, either on purpose, or because of waves or calamity.
In Treasure Island (1881-2), when shown a copy of the treasure map—minus the X’s that mark the location of hidden treasure—Long John Silver hides his annoyance by pretending that he’s looking at a likely place to work on a ship:
“Right you was, sir,” says he, “to haul your wind and keep the weather of the island. Leastways, if such was your intention as to enter and careen, and there ain’t no better place for that in these waters.”
The verb took on the general meaning of “to lean over; to tilt.” From the leaning of a ship, the verb came to be applied—chiefly in the US—to motor cars.
A hundred times their throats choked as the car careened on a bank. (1920)
As late as 1938, the nautical associations were still present:
The bird was careening from side to side as though there were waves.
Merriam-Webster gives the nautical meanings of the verb first. Additional definitions are “to sway from side to side” and “to career.”
Back to the reader’s question: Are both career and careen usable to describe the action of a car leaving the road?
Yes. If you are a US English speaker, you have the blessing of Merriam-Webster:
both words may be used to mean “to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner.”
My opinion: If the car is dashing headlong, I’d use career. If it’s lurching from side to side as it goes, I’d use careen.