Giving copy editors a wide berth

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Yesterday's news brings another constructional innovation, courtesy of Agence France Presse ("Americans giving Obama extraordinary support: polls", 1/18/2009):

A survey conducted by The New York Times and CBS News found a US public eager to give the president-elect a wide berth as he attempts to turn around a faltering US economy, tackle global warming, help solve the intractable Middle East peace process, along with a plethora of other mammoth challenges.

The context indicates that the writer intended "give the president-elect a wide berth" to mean "give the president-elect a great deal of latitude". That is, the polls mean that people trust his judgment and don't expect quick results; in a more informal idiom, they're going to cut him a lot of slack.

The trouble is, "give X a wide berth" normally means to give X "Ample space or distance to avoid an unwanted consequence", based on the meaning of berth as "sufficient space for a ship to maneuver safely". In this sense, to give someone a wide berth is to shun them, and this meaning for the idiom has been in effect for more more than 150 years, as can be seen from this passage in Herman Melville's 1849 novel Redburn:

What in your heart do you think of that fellow staggering along the dock? Do you not give him a wide berth, shun him, and account him but little above the brutes that perish? Will you throw open your parlors to him; invite him to dinner? or give him a season ticket to your pew in church?

In the abstract, without knowledge of the usual interpretation of the idiom, or of the underlying metaphorical idea of staying well away from troublesome or dangerous things, the idea that "a wide berth" means "generous latitude for action" makes perfectly good sense. But as usual, people who know the old ways will be taken aback by the new usage, especially because its emotional valence is the opposite of the old one's.

[Hat tip: Marta and Adrian Bailye; alt.usage.english]

[Update: a quick search of Google News shows that some other journalists also take interpret "wide berth" in a positive, "plenty of room for action" kind of way, e.g. these:

Until now, Russ Pennell has been given a wide berth by impatient, normally critical fans, the media and anonymous message board posters.

Vitter was never going to be the one to take Clinton out. Not after everything she's survived for lo these many years. Not with the usual wide berth that senators of either party generally give an incoming administration, and the special deference they tend to afford any respected colleague — let alone an iconic figure like Clinton.

In 1977, former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) was holed up in San Clemente, Calif., licking his wounds from Watergate and trying to craft a competing legacy. At this point, David Frost (Michael Sheen), the playboy BBC presenter known for variety shows and softball interviews, seemed to Nixon like a useful fool, a man out of his depth who could give Nixon a wide berth for recasting his presidency in a better light.

Journalists generally cut a wide berth for Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 when she moved into the White House, and Amy Carter, who was 9.

Considering the wide berth of titles available for download, I consider originality (and good gameplay) quite a feat.

The sale (reportedly worth something north of seven-figures) reduced newspaper competition in the valley, and the Mercury generally gave Cohen and editor Dale Bryant a wide berth in terms of calling the editorial shots.



  1. Tim McCormack said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    I've always heard that phrase used to connote a sense of repulsion. E.g., I walk around a guy who's using a jackhammer, but I give a wide berth to a street crazy who's yelling at the invisible aliens.

  2. Morten Jonsson said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    Interesting that one of the common alternatives they could have used is also a nautical metaphor: leeway.

  3. Dan T. said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Interesting… I've always associated "berth" with a sleeping compartment on a train, ship, or other vehicle, so a wide one would be one allowing ample room to toss and turn (or be tossed and turned by the movement of the vehicle) without falling off.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    Dan T.: I've always associated "berth" with a sleeping compartment on a train, ship, or other vehicle…

    The OED explains that berth is "A nautical term of uncertain origin: found first in end of 16th c.", whose senses in historical order are "Convenient sea-room, or a fit distance for ships under sail to keep clear, so as not to fall foul on one another" (1622), "Convenient sea-room for a ship that rides at anchor" (1658), "A proper place on board a ship for a mess to put their chests, etc." (1706), "transf. An allotted or assigned place in a barracks; a ‘place’ allotted in a coach or conveyance" (1732), "Naut. A sleeping-place in a ship" (1796), "A sleeping-place of the same kind in a railway carriage or elsewhere" (1806).

  5. Mitzi Barker said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    While we're on the topic of new interpretations for old constructions, another one I've noticed a lot lately is "beg the question" in the sense of demanding that a question be asked. Like "wan to" and "wide berth," this usage makes some semantic sense, and also like them is somewhat in opposition to the traditional meaning: in logic/debate, begging the question actually avoids dealing with an assumption.

    [(myl) For LL discussion of this one over the years, see here and here.]

  6. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    The antepenultimate example above, involving presidential daughters, is interesting to me because it says "cut a wide berth", which almost seems to contain an extra layer of metaphor. Though I suppose the word "cut" can mean "trace out a path" sometimes.

    [(myl) I interpreted it as a blend of "give a wide berth" and "cut a lot of slack". But you might be right that it's a livelier metaphor about carving a space in an imaginary solid form of media attention. ]

  7. Oskar said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    As a non-native but fairly fluent speaker of English (and one brave enough to comment on a linguistics blog), this is what I always understood "wide berth" to mean. I would probably have understood a sentence using the (apparently) older meaning of the phrase, but if you'd asked me out of the blue what it meant, I would definitely have answered "give wide latitude to".

    This isn't perhaps so surprising, as most English I encounter day-to-day is either in the form of pop culture (and I doubt that idiom gets used much on sitcoms) or stuff I read online, much of it journalism of some kind. And journalists apparently like the alternative usage.

    [(myl) Actually, I think that the traditional meaning — "give X a wide berth" = "avoid or shun X" — remains somewhat more common, even among journalists. Google News now gets 142 hits for "wide berth"; I checked the first 70, and classified them as 55 "avoid" vs. 15 "indulge", i.e. about 80% traditional. I'm assuming here that the positive-valence "wide berth" is a recent-enough development to be called non-traditional, and I could be wrong about this, but I don't think so. ]

  8. Tim Nix said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    Oddly, even though I personally think of "wide berth" as having a negative connotation and would probably only use it that way, the AFP quote didn't seem incorrect when I read it. Perhaps I've been hearing the phrase used this way without thinking about it, and I've grown accustomed to it.

    The second-to-last Google News example, though, seems completely wrong to me. Whether "wide berth" is positive or negative, it still implies space, not variety.

  9. Dan Milton said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    Somewhere I read of a dismissed servant in one of the colonies happily leaving with a recommendation along the lines of " Malik has served me for six months to his total satisfaction. If you are considering giving him a berth, be sure to make it a wide one".

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    On the topic of idioms with strikingly counterintuitive meanings, I used constantly in Anglophone West Africa to hear "every now and then" used to mean "at all times" from even highly competent and educated speakers. Well, that's exactly what it *should* mean, after all … the fact just never occurred to me, as a native speaker from the UK.

  11. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    @Tim Nix: Ditto here, on all counts.

  12. Brian said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

    I'd be curious to see if there's a spike in this new usage after the release of The Hunt For Red October movie in 1990. Sean Connery's line, "We must give this American a wide berth," is said just before his Russian sub moves away from the American one. Prior to this post, I took the meaning to be the contemporary usage. Now I see how it was probably meant to convey to the Russian crew that the American was dangerously crazy.

  13. Benjamin Lukoff said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 1:08 am

    Copy editors — I wonder if one even saw that sentence. They've been being told their services are inessential for years now. (For example, when I started working at, there were over 20 of us… when I left the copy team 2 1/2 years later, we were down to three).

  14. Chris Henrich said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    About the construction of tha sentence, I have another concern: faulty parallelism. "…Attempts to" introduces a series of coordinates. There are three perfectly parallel verb phrases: "turn…", "tackle…", "help…" — and then a prepositional phrase "along with…". Ouch.

    To my eye the sentence would be repaired if the list of verb phrases were snubbed off by inserting "and" before "help."

  15. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    Mark — why did you bring copy editors into this at all? You can make guesses about what copy editors did and didn't find, and what choices copy editors make, but otherwise, I don't see what they have to do with this post at all.

    AFP publishes in languages. We don't even know what language this article was originally written in, do we? Would "Give translators a wide berth" be more suitable?

    [Yes, I'm a copy editor.]

  16. Henitsirk said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

    "Give a wide berth" in my mind definitely connotes a desire for avoidance. As a copy editor, I would have changed that, or at least queried the writer's intention. Of course, I edit books, not newspapers or news service feeds, so I have that luxury!

    I think this is another argument for liberal arts education. I often find myself correcting mistakes in copy where the author was familiar enough with an idiom to use it in context, but unfamiliar enough (or forgetful, or dyslexic, or something) to get it wrong. I'm proofreading copy right now that included the phrase "azure waves of grain", for example. I believe the breadth of my education helps me catch these errors.

    But then I also argue frequently with my husband over how to determine when an idiom has changed in common usage, and whether it should therefore be changed in "official" terms. Maybe "give a wide berth" is changing.

  17. speedwell said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    "azure waves of grain"

    Goddammit, I just KNOW that I'll wind up singing that like an ass the next time I have to sing that song. Thanks for nothing. :D

  18. CriticalTodd said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    Count me as another in the camp of reading "give a wide berth" with a negative connotation.

  19. Rubrick said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

    Veering slightly, I'm interested to find (from the Melville quote) that "season tickets" is so old.

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    Rubrick: I'm interested to find … that "season tickets" is so old.

    The OED has:

    1820 Columbian Centinel (Boston, Mass.) 2 Dec. 1/1 For sale, a Boston Theatre *Season Ticket, at a fair price.
    1835 DICKENS Sk. Boz, River, The regular passengers, who have season-tickets, go below to breakfast.

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