Conquer these: careen, career, and carom

If you’ve read my books, you know that I split hairs over words. I love nuance, and want to preserve it wherever possible. So I’m unsparing when writers don’t take the trouble to look words up, or when copy editors let loosey goose usage glide on by. Take careen, career, and carom. With their similar sounds, and with a particular kind of uncontrolled movement implied by each verb, it's no wonder writers confuse them. Take a look at this excerpt from a recent New York Times book review of This House is Haunted.

The scene set, we readers should careen, hairs raised high, through the darkened rooms of Gaudlin Hall. The pages should turn themselves.

If this sounds correct to you, you're not alone. But it's not correct; that verb should be career, unless we readers are leaning around corners. Writers commonly use careen when they actually mean career ("to go at top speed, especially in a headlong manner"). Careen originally meant "to put a boat on a beach" (especially to clean or repair it). Now it also means "to heel over," or "to sway from side to side," suggesting a tilting or leaning motion. Another example that shows usage confusage comes from the Motley Fool UK:

As UK citizens, we all have good reason to fear a house price boom and bust. It would be ironic if we clawed out of the financial crisis only to careen into a new one.

Did the Motley Fool really mean to say that we claw out of one crisis only to lean into another, or that we move headlong and somewhat randomly into another? I think the Web site meant the latter, so career would have been the more apt verb. An article about traveling in Iceland gets it right:

For one thrilling hour, I careered across a seemingly infinite glacier as my motorised sled bounced over the frozen dunes, heavy clumps of snow lashing against my visor.

That sentence rightly gives us an image of glancing motion.

Ay, caramba! Carambola gave us carom And now we get to carom, meaning "to strike and rebound.” It comes from the Spanish word for a move in billiards (think of the way those balls bounce around the table.) In this next case, the writer of a blurb for a production of an English play, “You & Me,” would have been better off choosing carom:

They share an existence of outrageous defamation, tender reminiscing and pure madness, careering between affection and annoyance.

To my mind, the writer means that the characters bounce between the two different emotions, rather than rushing headlong. Carom makes a lot of sense when it describes the action of a puck during a hockey game:

Ward tied the game at 1 in the second period when a puck caromed off the boards on a faceoff and right to his stick.

It can be used metaphorically, too, and would have been the right word in a New York Times article about Twitter update ownership was going for:

In base economic terms, the value of individual Twitter updates seems to be negligible; after all, what is a Twitter post but a few bits of data sent caroming through the Internet?

So the next time you find yourself (or one of your characters) bouncing around or rushing about, ask yourself: am I caroming or careering? You are probably not careening. {Kudos to Kailani Moran for helping me find these examples.}

* * *

This post generated various retweets and a bit of conversation on Twitter. I thought I’d append the interesting ones here to continue the conversation. With beacongal beacongal, Nov 26 3:58pm via Web @sinandsyntax But don't you mean "If this sounds INcorrect to you, you’re not alone"? sinandsyntax, Nov 26 6:35pm via HootSuite @beacongal Um, the verb there should be *career* so if it sounds correct, it's not. But you're not alone. Perhaps that would be clearer? beacongal, Nov 27 3:25am via Web @sinandsyntax Yeah, it didn't sound correct to me. That's why I'm confused. But now I get it. "Careen" sounds correct to most people. {NOTE: I EDITED THE POST AFTER THIS EXCHANGE}   With alexziemianski: alexziemianski, Nov 25 12:05pm via Web @wordnik @sinandsyntax 'confusage' is the literary momentum which gives 'careen' it's new definition. If you can make up new definitions. sinandsyntax, Nov 25 2:30pm via HootSuite @alexziemianski Take yr point but using a word in a silly, Dr. Seussian way is different from not knowing meaning of "career" and "careen"?   With Grandpa27Kelly: Grandpa27Kelly, Nov 25 9:34am via Web @sinandsyntax As I wrote on your blog, I never heard/saw career used as a verb. Where does it appear in real life, except in the dictionary? sinandsyntax, Nov 25 2:28pm via HootSuite @Grandpa27Kelly Check out Vex, Hex, Mack. I have "career" as it appears in the New Yorker and in a memoir by Anthony Doerr. Grandpa27Kelly, Nov 25 3:14pm via Tweet Button @sinandsyntax Ouch! Feet to the fire hurt. Mack {MACK'S ORIGINAL COMMENT POSTED BELOW}  

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4 Responses to Conquer these: careen, career, and carom

  1. Mackenzie Kelly November 23, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    I have never heard or seen career used as as a verb:
    Verb:
    move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction: the car careered across the road and went through a hedge.

    Is this a west coast thing? Its use as a verb would get my attention and distract from my understanding.

    Mack

    • Mackenzie Kelly November 28, 2013 at 11:54 am #

      I have been mulling over the CCC verbs and decided that career the noun is so over whelming that the verbal meaning is lost. Careen is better and its noun form doesn’t get in the way. Carom is so billiard bound that “to drunkly carom off the wall …” sounds forced and off-putting. I tossed Gander out as another verbal form so removed from a male goose that I did check the dictionary after I posted.
      Mack
      PS Hone for home – No way!! If I may horn-in.
      M
      PPS How many rural verbs have lost their roots in the Big City?
      m

  2. Layla December 13, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    I like reading an article that will make people think.
    Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!

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  1. Language Blog Roundup: Nelson Mandela, all caps, dalek | Wordnik - December 6, 2013

    […] James also gave us a simple way to remember how to use you and I versus you and me. Constance Hale taught us the difference between careen, career, and carom. […]

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