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Careen / Career

You’re doing it wrong

Dear Word Detective:  I went to the dictionary last night to check the difference between “careen” and “career” (as verbs).  In my mind I had the words as interchangeable and was curious if the difference (ending in “n” vs. ending in “r”) was merely an etymological typo.  Then, on reading the definition for “careen,” I saw the phrase “heel over” which is strikingly similar (in spelling and definition) to “keel over” and again points to another word-morph — especially considering that my dictionary indicates “careen” comes from the Greek for “keel.”  The question, I guess, is how did “careen” and “career” and “heel over” and “keel over” evolve to be such similar words? — Rick Ceschin.

Although “careen” and “career” as verbs are often used interchangeably today, they are, in fact, quite separate words.  Strictly speaking, “careen” means “to lean over, to tilt,” while “career” as a verb means “to rush at full speed” (with implications of recklessness).

“Careen,” which first appeared in English in the late 16th century, originally meant “to turn a ship on its side for caulking, etc.”  The root of “careen” is the Latin “carina,” meaning “keel of a ship” (originally “nutshell,” from the similarity of a ship’s hull to a nutshell).  The use of “careen” in the more general sense of “to tilt” dates to the late 19th century.

“Career” as a verb meaning “to move at full speed” is actually the same word as the noun “career” meaning “profession or course of employment or activity.”  The root of “career” is the Latin “carrus,” meaning “wheeled vehicle” (which is also the source of “car”).  One Middle French derivative of “carrus” was “carriere,” meaning “racecourse,” and when the noun “career” first appeared in English it meant “racetrack,”  the “course of life” meaning being a later metaphorical development.  So it makes sense that the verb “career,” reflecting that original “racetrack” meaning of the noun, would mean “to race at top speed.”

Interestingly, “careen” and “career” began to be used interchangeably only in the early 20th century, just about the time people noticed that a motor car rounding a curve at high speed (“careering”) tended to tilt quite a bit (“careening”).  Purists still draw a distinction between the two words, but it’s really a losing battle at this point.

“Heel” and “keel” are also two entirely separate words, though as verbs their meanings are very similar.  “Heel” as a verb meaning “to tilt over” comes from the Old English “hyldan,” meaning to incline or “list” as an unbalanced ship might.  (This “heel” is unrelated to the noun “heel” meaning the rearmost portion of the foot.)  “Keel” as a verb (“keel over”) comes from “keel” as a noun meaning the lowest longitudinal timber of a ship or boat (i.e., the absolute bottom of a ship’s hull), drawn from the Old Norse word for it, “kjolr.”  To “keel” or “keel over” originally, in the 18th century, meant to roll completely over, as a ship overturning and showing its keel.  Today we use “keel over” to mean “suddenly collapse” or “fall over.”

4 comments to Careen / Career

  • The Holg

    You write, “… people noticed that a motor car rounding a curve at high speed (”careening”) tended to tilt quite a bit (”careering”).”

    I think you accidentally switched the two words here.

  • words1

    Right you are. Fixed it. Thanks.

  • Evan Careen

    Just as a side-note which has nothing to do with this article careen is also a surname, mine in fact. I’ve tried many times to find out where is came from, since it is apparently rare and since my family have been involved in the fishery for hundreds of years I wonder if the ‘keel’ connection means something. Just thought I’d mention it.

  • Philip Anderson

    It’s worth noting that there is no confusion in British English, since only ships careen or (more usually) are careened in the UK. I thought an American friend had merely mistyped ‘careered’ until I checked the dictionary.

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