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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

What an editor can learn from a dog-whistle edit

The Baltimore Sun

For many of my colleagues, the late Professor John Bremner of the University of Kansas was the last word in copy editing, and his manual on usage, Words on Words, was a final authority. The problem with authority for editors is our all-too-human tendency to learn something once and never look back.

I was reminded of this when, looking up something in Words on Words, I came across the careen/career entry. I’d better explain it, because for many of you it is going to turn out to be one of those dog-whistle edits.

To careen, the distinction holds, is “to sway from side to side.” The word comes from the Latin carina, keel of a ship. In the days of wooden ships, when no dry dock was available, a captain would have the crew careen the ship, tilt it on its side on a beach to clear off barnacles and make repairs to the hull. (You will have learned this from Forester’s Hornblower novels.)

To career, then, is “to move forward at high speed.” The word comes from the French carriere, racecourse.

The problem, as Bryan Garner explains in Garner’s Modern English Usage, is that in American English, careen has carried the sense of moving forward at velocity for a century, while also retaining the sense of lurching from side to side. We seldom if ever use career as a verb any longer, and Mr. Garner lists careen as “to move wildly at high speed” as a fully accepted usage.

So does the American Heritage Dictionary, where the distinction is so long extinguished that the editors do not provide a note saying that it ever existed. And the Associated Press Stylebook, if it ever maintained the distinction, dropped it over the side decades ago.

For many years, because the distinction was listed in The Sun’s stylebook, I dutifully changed careen to career, no doubt puzzling virtually all of the readers who came across it. Now, of course, no one much cares what is in The Sun’s stylebook—not that many on the staff ever did—and I am free to drop outdated rules that no longer make any sense.

Here’s the thing. When you work as an editor, there is much to learn. But don’t forget that there is also much to unlearn.

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