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.


  1. jamessal says

    No. My impression is yours. And Happy Easter, Hat.

  2. John Emerson says

    George Wll deserves every wide berth in the world.

  3. Never heard that usage either. I’d guess it’s either a malapropism or a spellcheck error for “a wide brief”.

  4. I’m sure this is a malapropism. I might also say ‘remit’, if I wanted to be fancy.

  5. “on field product”

  6. I can’t recall ever hearing “wide berth” used in that way, either. Sounds like a malapropism to me too. I’d go for something along the lines of “wide latitude” or “broad discretion.”

  7. My vote: a simple slip.

  8. Tend to agree with you, Hat. But as long as we’re doing Keats, here’s one for you:
    Why are they “western” islands?

  9. I’m with everyone else, so I’ll point out that a somewhat similar metaphor gives aloof, I believe.

  10. I would guess that the usage in this case is bleed-over from “playoff berth,” in which case “berth” means a designated slot. Since it is, otherwise, a rarely used word, I think it is likely that the author(s) of the article had not heard “berth” (meaning a docking or routing place for a ship — hence, you want it to be wide so a ship doesn’t accidentally knock into something) in its original meaning in a long, long time (if ever).

  11. Jean-Pierre says

    I’ve never heard it used that way before, but, like you, I’m suspicious of my perceptions. When I first heard “out of pocket” used to mean “unavailable,” I sputtered and asserted that this one person was dreadfully mistaken. Then I started hearing it used that way all over the place. Then I found out that it had been used that way long ago. So, for all I know, there’s a whole bunch of people who use “wide berth” in that way. I’m going to start using it to mean “wide stance” and see if it catches on.

  12. Would people who use “wide berth” with that sense be berthers?

  13. I’d say he’s confused “wide berth” (254,000 hits) with “broad remit” (107,000). The other question, if he didn’t know the meaning of the phrase, is how he managed to avoid writing “wide birth” (108,000). He’s clearly not in the Dorothy Parker or Groucho Marx league, but to some extent he still had his Witz about him.

  14. Dan Milton says

    The memoirs of a colonial administrator in, as I remember, Malaya tell of a job applicant with a testimonial from his previous employer along the lines of “Abdul served me three months to his total satisfaction. If you are considering giving him a berth, be sure to make it a wide one”.

  15. Maybe “wide scope” is what was meant. I’ve never heard berth used to mean purview.

  16. Charles Perry says

    It’s been years since I’ve heard “beg the question” used in any sense but “raise the question.”

  17. You’re begging the question, Mr Perry.

  18. I’ve actually heard it used in this sense but effortfully refrained from saying anything about it. And I’ve seen it in print (more expensive than the internet). I guess it’s changing.
    I’m glad to see you are back in touch with your blog!

  19. Jim T: The metaphorical isles (poems) are called “western” because they were written in Latin or another Western European language that Keats could read, as opposed to Greek which he could not. I had thought that there was also a connection to Keats’s trip to the western isles of Scotland, but that didn’t happen until two years later.

  20. I’ve actually heard it used in this sense but effortfully refrained from saying anything about it. And I’ve seen it in print (more expensive than the internet). I guess it’s changing.
    Oh dear, and just when I was relaxing and accepting that it was just a one-time blunder.

  21. In saying that the committee has been given a wide berth, perhaps the writer is politely suggesting that the distinguished gents, as well as being stupendously wise, are somewhat broad in the beam. Spending hours at the ballpark eating hot dogs will do that.
    In any case, I hope this examination of the on-field product will find opportunities to synergize baseball with other revenue-positive activities, and that it will lead to significant upgrading of skillsets by key personnel in the baseball enterprise. Also, any recommendations should have clear accountability structure, and come with transparent achievement metrics.
    I recently learned to talk like this from a bit of freelance work I was engaged in. It’s fun and profitable.

  22. Dear resurrected Mr Hat, & al: Okay, I am On Red Alert. The next time I hear or see this usage anywhere, I will document it and report on it. But as I only recall one written instance and two spoken ones (by “young-ish” people – people under 35…and I don’t count at all any instances I may have heard from non-native speakers). It might be a year or two before I can report on this. I’ll try to keep the alert alert.
    Do we really want to know? Two or three instances are not going to be statistically significant…

  23. and if I can manage to re-encounter the print version, you’ll all be the first to know

  24. John Cowan- Consider this:
    West, in this poem, is the direction of discovery, of the new. Keats says that he only thought he had discovered new territory — but the “western” in the main body of the poem is only a faint echo of what ultimately proved to be out there.
    In other words: Western? You want western? How about the Pacific Ocean? Is that western enough for you?

  25. This has come up on Language Log. The consensus there seemed to be in line with comments here.

  26. Oh, hell. If you mean the commenters didn’t like the use, that’s true, but the more salient point is that it’s clearly an established one in that it turns up a lot. Guess I’d better update the post. (How did I miss that Log post?)

  27. Yes, the evidence in the Log post suggests it has established itself to some degree among some journalists, but like here, the commenters seem not to have come across it much, which is surprising.
    I hadn’t come across the “give room for manoeuvre” sense myself, but it’s actually pretty transparent. To that extent I wouldn’t say I dislike it. But it does seem to be one case of semantic shift where there’s genuinely plenty of scope for confusion.

  28. On April 3, WaPo columnist Lonnie Parker wrote about giving strange names to kids (beginning with LaceDarius Dunn. In the column she said:
    As a black woman with a derivative name — my father was Lonnie — I give people a wide berth.
    It quickly became clear she had the new meaning, but it gave me pause.

  29. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but to me this use sounds perfectly normal (though I wouldn’t consider it the phrase’s main sense).

  30. I agree that it makes perfect sense; it’s just not (what used to be) the phrase’s meaning. But idioms, like the rest of language, evolve – especially when for most people a “berth” is a place that’s rather narrow.

  31. It seems that the original nautical meaning of “berth” is not as narrow, so to speak, as I once thought: it referred not just to the space allotted to a ship in port, but also to “sea room” — the space required for a manoeuvre — something like that.

  32. I feel that post #3 is entirely correct in saying this is a malapropism for “wide brief” .. “wide brief” is a familiar phrase that perfectly states what’s intended here. But giving a “wide berth” has, of course, a long established and quite different meaning (ie making an effort to avoid). However, if editors and others are occasionally not seeing this as a mistake then perhaps the thin edge of the wedge may have made its first tiny thrust, only time will tell.

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