The other day, my husband asked, “So what’s the difference between career–as in to career down a hill, the verb, and careen?”

To which I brilliantly said, “Uh . . . er . . . I don’t know.”

So naturally, I had to look it up. And it’s SO INTERESTING!

Let’s start with career. We all know it mainly today as the noun–our job path–right? But that’s a derivation of the original meaning dating from the 1530s, which was “a set course to run.” A horse would run down a career in a joust, for example. Or a runner might sprint through the career in a race. It’s from the French carriere, and before that the Latin cararia, and is the same root as words like “carriage” and “chariot.” (Who knew?!)

About 60 years after the noun entered English, the verb joined it–meaning “to charge at a tournament,” from that idea of the horse running the career. By the 1640s, it had taken on a broader meaning of “to move rapidly, run at full speed.”

So our notion of career-as-a-noun is actually directly from that original noun definition–it got broadened to mean “general course of action” by around 1600, and hence more specifically “course of one’s public or professional life” by 1803.

So what about careen? Dating from the 1590s it’s from the French cariner, which is in turn from Latin carina, which is literally the keel of a ship. So to careen was to turn the ship on its side and expose the keel–first in the sense of an inspection, but later came to be any time the ship tossed from side to side. By the 1880s it had taken a turn toward the general, and was applied to anything tossing from side to side, especially at high speeds. But apparently it wasn’t confused with career until the 1920s. Before that–perhaps because ships were still such a standard part of life (my musing, not the official one)–the two were never used interchangeably.

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