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Where does the phrase "a wide berth" as in "give it a wide berth", meaning lots of room, come from? I know it as a nautical term.

(Some of my female friends seem to think it's a chauvinistic reference to birth.)

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

the first definition for "berth" given in the Oxford English Dictionary is

  1. Naut. ‘Convenient sea-room, or a fit distance for ships under sail to keep clear, so as not to fall foul on one another’

with examples from 1622.

The OED says of the word's etymology:

A nautical term of uncertain origin: found first in end of 16th cent. Most probably a derivative of bear v.1 in some of its senses: see especially sense 37, quot. 1627, which suggests that berth is = ‘bearing off, room-way made by bearing-off’; compare also bear off in 26 b. The early spellings byrth , birth , coincide with those of birth n.1 ‘bearing of offspring, bringing forth,’ but it is very doubtful whether the nautical use can go back to a time when that word had the general sense ‘bearing’; it looks more like a new formation on bear, without reference to the existing birth.

So the word berth is very likely closely related to birth; but this meaning is far removed from it.

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Very interesting. I never though of it that way, but if to give "berth" to something means to give it room, then it makes perfect sense that the word "birth" was derived from it, since you're bringing the newborn from an enclosed space to one where it has "berth". – Alain May 9 '12 at 23:25
Interesting, yes, but I still don't think it's a term to tiptoe around. – J.R. May 9 '12 at 23:35
The connection is via "to bear a child". The Online Etymology Dictionary traces "birth" to "bhrto pp. of root bher", evidently Proto-Indo-European, which denoting to "to carry; to bear children", and that has a connection to Sanskrit. (Look up "carry" in an English-Sanskrit dictionary). – Kaz May 9 '12 at 23:58
@Alain, I think you're reading into it what the OED strongly suggests isn't there. It's just different developments from "bear" = "carry". – Colin Fine May 10 '12 at 21:19

'Berth' originally meant 'a place where there is sea room to moor a ship' which in turn was derived from 'bearing off'. So when sailors where asked to keep a wide bearing off something, they were asked to make sure there was enough sea room from it.

From here, when accepted to general population, its meaning also became more general as in 'keep more distance from'.


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I did find this site before posting the question, it just seemed to lack... research. – Alain May 10 '12 at 0:26

Maybe this is just obvious, but the one part that no one's yet mentioned is why you'd want a wide berth: because (some) ships are heavy, slow-moving and unwieldy conveyances, especially compared to wagons, carts, horses, etc. With a narrow berth the ship or pier or other ships could be easily damaged, and generally there is a greater risk of loss of control of the situation.

So it makes sense, then, that we urge people to give a wide berth, metaphorically, to other people that are unwieldy, out of control, generally uncontrollable, potentially dangerous, have a 'short fuse' or low anger threshold, etc.

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