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.

  33. 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 I thought I’d check the OED, and here’s what I found:

    Revised 2004


    Meaning & use


    See out of prep. Compounds.

    1885 The plaintiffs..incurred various out-of-pocket expenses.
    Law Times Reports vol. 52 545/1

    1973 He was to be paid £15,000 in used notes, for his own pay-off and his out-of-pocket.
    ‘I. Drummond’, Jaws of Watchdog vii. 92

    1994 Let us ignore the out-of-pocket costs of travel.
    American Scientist October 451/3

    That’s it. No definition. And no, there’s no help at “out of prep.” What are they up to? Do they really think it doesn’t need explaining, and have they never seen any other usages?

  34. i’ve seen a shift with stand-alone “out of pocket” (as opposed to the fairly fixed “out of pocket expenses/costs”*) over the last five or at most ten years from meaning “broke” to meaning more or less the same as “out of hand” – “behaving inappropriately or excessively (in a negative sense)”. i think, based on how i’ve seen it spread, that it comes from the black queer & trans world that produces a lot of u.s. slang, but i don’t have a citation to point to.

    * = paid along the way, rather than in advance, especially in situations where they properly should be covered (and perhaps will be reimbursed later) by an organization or patron.

  35. As for the western isles, the WP talk page suggests that they are specifically the Hesperides (the Canaries and/or the Madeiras), which indeed were sacred to Apollo qua sun-god.

  36. So I thought I’d check the OED, and here’s what I found

    You’re looking at the lemma out-of-pocket, adj. & n. The entries you want are phrase sub-entries under pocket, n. & adj. (revised 2006):

    P.1.c. U.S. out of pocket: out of reach, absent, unavailable.
    [earliest quotation from O. Henry in 1908]

    P.2.a. out of pocket: out of funds; worse off financially (by some transaction).
    [quotations from 1679–present]

    (I’m surprised it didn’t give you both; I got both on typing “out of pocket” in the search box, but maybe the search function glitched.) The remark under out of saying “See also under the nouns themselves for non-attributive uses” is probably meant to tell you to go to the noun X for a definition of out-of-X, but yeah, that’s not as helpful as it should be. I think it was already unhelpful in the previous format, and the new format putting each out-of-X lemma is on a separate page is no better. They should have provided cross-reference links to each X, but maybe they couldn’t do that in 2004 or didn’t think of it.

    My vote would be to combine attributive out-of-pocket and predicative out of pocket in the same entry; the OED sometimes puts different syntactical constructions in different sub-entries, but it would be still be much more useful to have them visible together.

    I somehow had never heard of the “unavailable” sense of “out of pocket” until recently; don’t know whether it has recently become much more popular, or I just missed it.

  37. Thanks for that, and yes, they could definitely be more helpful.

  38. On “out of pocket,” see now Ben Zimmer in the WSJ:

    For those who are millennials or older, saying you’ll be “out of pocket” can simply mean that you’ll be away from work and unavailable. But for members of Gen Z, being “out of pocket” can suggest acting chaotically or inappropriately.

    Cross-generational confusion about “out of pocket” is on display in a viral video on TikTok that has amassed approximately two million views since it was posted last Saturday. In the video, TikToker @notahand says, “My boss, every time she’s gonna be out of the office for a portion of the day—not the whole day but, like, for a doctor’s appointment or something—she’ll say, ‘So, I’m gonna be out of pocket today from 1 to 2.’ And it just cracks me up every time, ’cause it’s like, ‘What you gonna get up to, girl?’” This isn’t the first time the generational divide has been noted, as a Washington Post quiz on “Gen-Z office speak” last December also flagged the expression as a potential pitfall in the workplace.

    Long before “out of pocket” became a bone of contention online, the phrase had yet another, more literal, meaning. The word “pocket” originally referred to a small pouch, formed as a diminutive of “poque,” an Old North French word for “bag.” The meaning narrowed to refer to pouches sewn on garments by the 15th century, and “pocket” took on a financial sense, based on its use as a place to tuck away money. […]

    While “out of pocket” long referred to being financially strapped, the meaning of “unavailable” or “out of reach” turns out to be surprisingly old. A 1908 short story by William Sydney Porter, who used the pen name O. Henry, includes the line, “Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can.” Porter, who hailed from North Carolina, may have been reflecting his Southern dialect. The Dictionary of American Regional English, based on fieldwork conducted in the late 1960s, found that the “unavailable” meaning was chiefly known in the South.

    That meaning started to become part of American office culture in the 1970s, right around when a new colloquial sense of the phrase was bubbling up. Slang expert Jonathon Green has tracked how “out of pocket” came to refer to acting wildly, especially when used among Black Americans. Green cites the work of the social anthropologists Christina and Richard Milner, who published “Black Players,” a groundbreaking ethnography of San Francisco’s pimps and sex workers, in 1972. The book’s glossary says the phrase “refers to speech or behavior which is unacceptable, out of line, not right,” adding that it derives from “poolroom slang,” since “on the pool table shooting a ball ‘out of pocket’ causes the player to lose his turn.”

    This unruly sense has cropped up in hip-hop lyrics at least since 1990, when Oakland’s Dangerous Dame rapped, “Some punk get out of pocket.” That this usage is being identified as “Gen Z slang” illustrates how expressions originating among Black Americans are frequently subject to cultural appropriation.

    Among the thousands of comments on TikTok about the phrase, one user summed up the debate well: “Words can have multiple meanings and situational context matters. It’s kind of just like how language works.”

    So not only is my only meaning (‘financially strapped’) so archaic it has to be explained to readers well down the page as an interesting bit of history, there’s yet a third meaning that’s been around since the ’70s and well known among rap-aware circles since the ’90s. I shake my cane at the modern world from far off on an ice floe…

  39. Keith Ivey says

    I don’t even have the “financially strapped” meaning. My only meaning is the one Merriam-Webster gives as “from cash on hand : with one’s own money rather than with money from another source (such as an insurance company)”. And I’m younger than you. I shake my cane in solidarity.

  40. Actually, now that you mention it the meaning you cite is what I myself use — I was just grabbing the money-related one from the article.

Speak Your Mind