So I’m flipping through the NY Times 2010 Baseball Preview and trying to ignore the terrible things they’re saying about my team (“For Mets, Gloom and Doom…”), and I start reading a story by Billy Witz about a “recently formed 14-member committee of managers, general managers, owners and others who are exploring ways in which the game may be improved,” and I hit the following sentence:
Though the committee has been charged with examining the on-field product, it has been given a wide berth, and includes some of baseball’s more renowned names and influential thinkers: Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, John Schuerholz, Frank Robinson and the columnist George Will.
It took me a minute to parse it, because to me, to give someone or something a wide berth can only mean to stay well away from it. Here, however, it clearly is intended to mean what I would call a broad mandate or a wide scope of activity. My first thought was “tsk, what bad writing,” but if there’s anything I’ve learned from running this blog and following language-related discussions elsewhere, it’s that the older I get, the less I can trust my own judgments about such things. So, as I tend to do, I turn to you, the Varied Reader, and ask: are you familiar with “a wide berth” used in this sense? Is it a simple slip on the part of Witz and his editors, or is it a new usage that has just swum into my ken?
Update. Reader Breffni points out a Language Log post (that I somehow missed) on this very issue, in which Mark Liberman points out enough examples of this construction (“a US public eager to give the president-elect a wide berth,” “Until now, Russ Pennell has been given a wide berth,” etc.—see the Log post for context) to make it clear that it is in fact a new usage aborning and not a simple mistake. I don’t like it, but such is life.
And commenter Ran in the thread says it sounds perfectly normal. I guess it’ll be in the next edition of Merriam-Webster, so I’d better get used to it.