Sunday, January 17, 2010
I'm sure we've all heard, read and probably even occasionally used this one. "The delapidated old truck careened down the highway at breakneck speed," would be an example of the way I'd think of its usage. To my mind, this would be a vehicle that was coming along at a crazy, ill-controlled pace, probably wobbling from side to side as it came.
But early on in my reading of David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, I came upon this sentence: "An Indian war canoe is being careened on the shore." This sentence could mean just about anything, except that careen can not mean what it means in my sentence above. There is another careen of this type in this section of the book, which of course, I can't now find, but somehow between the two of them I've imagined it to mean something like "carved out". However, from just this sentence it could as easily be "decorated" or even "stored".
Mitchell is nothing if not verbally adroit, so this fictional diary excerpt, supposedly written at about the time of the California Gold Rush, I am sure uses careen accurately for that era, and for all I know, this one as well. It would very much surprise me if the two careens were not related. But how did we get from the war canoes to the hurtling truck?
"Careen" means to turn a ship--or in this case, a canoe--on its side, usually to clean, caulk or otherwise repair the hull. The word stems from the Latin carina, which means "hull" both in the nautical sense and in the (probably earlier) sense of a nutshell. In fact once definition I read calls it 'half a nut shell, and that makes for a visual image which at least to me shows the connection between the two meanings pretty clearly.
But "careen" also had another nautical meaning--that of a ship leaning to one side as it sails in a strong wind. It seems pretty clear to me how this second meaning grew out of the first, and our current idea of lurching or swerving from side to side came in turn out of this secondary meaning.
However, a controversy arises! Some etymologists get very frustrated by this use of the word careen when they are sure people are actually mixing it up with "career", which in one of its senses means "to gallop, run or move at full speed". You can read about this argument at what looks like a very good, if opinionated word usage site here.
My own intuition would be that the two words have been to some degree conflated. I base this finding on the highly unscientific evidence that it sounds exactly like something I would do.
Finally, my web wanderings took me to this lovely site, where careen, or at least carina becomes part of the cosmos itself. Reading through the way many things in many languages connect back to one simple word gives me a sense of language as a very far-flung gorgeous net indeed.