Some word confusions are interesting but not quite common enough to qualify for an entry on my Common Errors in English Usage Web site. Some seem nevertheless worth discussing here.
“Berth” originally referred to the room required by a ship to maneuver freely, later to the space within which a ship could anchor itself near the shore. Hence the expression “to give a wide berth,” meaning to stay well away from someone or something.
Then it was sailors rather than ships who were berthed: a place for a sailor to sleep was a berth. And to have a berth was more broadly to have a place—a job—on a ship.
Finally, the term came to be applied to athletics, where a contestant is assigned a berth: a spot in a contest. A basketball team is assigned a berth in the Final Four.
The stacked beds in railroad sleeper cars and bunks are also referred to as berths.
Since most people now encounter the term in connection with sports, they sometimes misspell it as “birth.” You will also occasionally see people saying they give something “a wide birth.”
Punning journalists love to play with mistakes like this. The headline on an article about Caesarean section in the New York Post was “Given a Wide Birth.”