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Beatrice was driving like a very slow lunatic. She went twenty-five miles an hour on the highway and kept drifting across lanes so the other cars honked and swerved and ran into guardrails and stuff.

Does "drift" mean a "slow steady movement from one place to another"? Well, I know that there is a motorsport that is called "drifting", but I think that this is not the case. But I believe that when you are in this motorsport, you drift the car, I suppose.

  • Yes, to drift means a "slow steady movement from one place to another." Whether it takes place in water (as with a boat), on land (in a car, bus, van, truck or other motorized vehicle), or in the air (a plane can drift off course). Drifting can be deliberate or involuntary. Carelessness, inattention, and dementia can all contribute to drifting. Perhaps Beatrice in your example has dementia! As for a motorsport involving drifting, I've never heard of it. – rhetorician Mar 11 '13 at 17:34
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Before a Hollywood film popularized the motorsport sense of drifting, one would have interpreted it in a more general sense:

[with adverbial of direction] walk slowly, aimlessly, or casually

[with adverbial] move passively, aimlessly, or involuntarily into a certain situation or condition

  • I believe that the motorsport sense of drifting - when it was first coined and someone was actually thinking about the meaning of the word, rather than using it reflexively - comes from the fact that a drift is essentially unsteerable. A skilled driver can put the car into a drift at a precisely-chosen time and place... but from the moment the drift starts until the tires have full traction again, the car is essentially ballistic and the driver has (almost) no control. – MT_Head Mar 11 '13 at 17:23
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    A drift in the traditional sense is steerable (in a car) once the driver realizes that they are off-course or out of their lane. A skid, on the otherhand is not steerable. The best one can do with a skid is turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid and wait for the tires to re-engage the pavement. – Kristina Lopez Mar 11 '13 at 17:41
  • Actually, motorsport "drifting" is closer to the original/core sense of the word (being carried along by current/winds, not under steering control). The cited usage is to some extent a later derived "metaphorical" sense, in that it alludes to the unpredictable variations in heading/course that are caused by drifting. – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '13 at 18:52
  • In motorsport drifting I was under the impression that the front wheels are turned into the skid and are "steered" throughout the turn while the amount of "kick out" of the rear end is controlled by careful modulation of the throttle in order to keep the tail out without completely spinning out. – Jim Mar 12 '13 at 6:40
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The drifting described in your example is usually implied that the driver is impaired by either drowsiness (where they might keep nodding off) or caused by drugs, alcohol or illness. . . or texting!

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Your understanding of the word drift is correct, and so is your assertion that it is not meant in the same sense as in motorsport. Specifically in this case, it is implied that she was meandering unpredictably between lanes, without indicating her intention or waiting for a suitable opening. Had she used indicators and otherwise driven responsibly, other drivers would have been able to act accordingly and avoid running into guard rails.

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The sentence is making a sense like "Beatrice was aimlessly wandering from place to place not knowing her proper destination where to go."

  • That doesn't seem to be the case in this example because it mentions that she is crossing lines in her drift, not that she is purposefully changing lanes as if she intends to turn in one direction, then another, like someone who is lost. Without context including Beatrice's state of mind, it is purely speculation, though, isn't it? :-) – Kristina Lopez Mar 11 '13 at 17:47

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