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.