Printable Version
Pronunciation: bêrth Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Sufficient space for a ship to maneuver. 2. Sufficient space for anything to maneuver. 3. A place for a ship to dock or a person to sleep on board (a ship, train, etc.)

Notes: Today's Good Word seems to have a variety of unrelated meanings, but they all revolve around required space. The plural is often pronounced slightly more softly than the singular ([brdhz]) with a voiced TH-sound like that of this and that rather than that of thistle. Either way is OK. Just remember to give a wide berth to birth so as not to confuse the spellings.

In Play: Today's word commonly occurs in the idiom meaning to keep a distance, steer clear (of): "I understand the health benefits of garlic so long as those who eat it keep a wide berth of me." However, this sense may be used elsewhere: "The horse I bet on came in a good berth behind the rest of the pack." Of course, sleeping places on board ships and trains are also berths: "I thought it was raining on the train until I realized that my traveling companion in the upper berth had been unable to keep his dinner down."

Word History: Although the spelling berth has now solidly established itself, before the 19th century today's word was spelled birth. That is because both words are nouns derived from the same verb: bear. Exactly why is anyone's guess, but seamen have always liked this verb (see also a ship's bearing). In Germanic languages it also refers to birth and that which is born: a bairn "child", as the Scots say. Bear is a member of a huge derivational family that stretches across all the Indo-European languages. In Latin it became ferre "to carry", found in dozens of English words (infer, defer, etc.); in Russian it appears in brat' "take" and in Sanskrit bharati "he carries, takes". (We would like to take the opportunity to thank Kathleen McCune for finding a berth for this word in our Good Word series.)

Dr. Goodword,

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