One definition of career is to move at full speed, especially with an uncontrolled or unsteady motion. Careen used to mean (1) to turn (a ship) on its side for cleaning or repairs, and (2) to lurch or sway, especially when in motion. But in modern usage, careen has come to mean to move fast, especially in an uncontrolled way, making it synonymous with career.
Searching the web, we find much opposition to this change, and the supposed misuse of careen seems to peeve many people. But it’s a lost cause. In current news and blog writing that is searchable online, we find zero instances of careen used in the old senses, versus hundreds of examples of the word used in the new way. So while each of us is free to preserve the old meanings in our own writing, most of the English-speaking world has moved on (with rare exceptions in nautical contexts).
For those who resist the change, there might be consolation in the fact that the verb sense of career is alive, especially outside North America. In British and Australian sources, careered and careering occur about ten times as often as careened and careening (though these latter words, when they occur, are used in the new sense). The ratio is reversed in American and Canadian publications, with careened and careening being much more common.
Incidentally, careen is often used in place of carom, especially in sportswriting, but that’s a subject for another post.
Career came from the French carrière, meaning racecourse, in the middle 16th century, and the verb sense developed about a century later out of the word’s racing associations.1 2 So the verb sense of career is actually older than our modern noun senses (i.e., a professional pursuit or a course through life), which did not come about until the early 19th century.
Careen comes from the Middle French carène and the Latin carina, both denoting the keel of a ship.3
We searched extensively for current examples of careen used in the old senses, but we only find examples like these:
The vehicle careened off the road, rolled over for about 200 yards, struck a tree and then smashed into the ravine. [Telegraph]
[T]he 2010 movie “Unstoppable” featured a runaway freight train loaded with hazardous materials, careening toward populated areas. [Los Angeles Times]
Riders careen down one of two cables which stretch from the top of the mountain all the way to the base. [Pocono Record]
But the verb sense of career lives on, especially outside North America—for example:
The collision sent the taxi careering into the front of a Chinese takeaway in Edge Hill. [Liverpool Echo]
A fine leap at the final flight sealed the deal and she careered away up the famous hill to secure a four-length win. [Irish Times]
Our state finances are not careering off a cliff, Cain-Kirner style. [Herald Sun (Australia)]