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Burthen

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  • Burthen is an archaic variant of burden. It was common in English as recently as the late 19th century, but it is mostly absent from the language today. It was often used as a nautical term denoting the tonnage of a ship, as in phrases like “a schooner of 200 tons burthen.” This sense of burthen outlasted all the others, but it is now obsolete as well.

    Examples

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    The absence of officers and privates from their duty under various pretexts, while receiving pay at great expense and burthen to the Government, makes it necessary that efficient measures be taken to enforce their return to duty. [New York Times (1862)]

    He had chosen this fragile creature, and had taken the burthen of her life upon his arms. He must walk as he could, carrying that burthen pitifully. [Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871)]

    We act consistently, because for the sake of introducing an endless and uninterrupted peace, do we bear the evils and burthens of the present day. [Common Sense, Thomas Paine (1776)]

    I waited now his return; eager to disburthen my mind, and to seek of him the solution of the enigma that perplexed me. [Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (1847)]

    [C]heerily have ye made me tread the path of life with all the burthens of it (except its cares) upon my back. [The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne (1759)]

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    Comments

    1. Philip James says:

      Burthen – Burden – Berth – Birth are related through an old
      Germanic word for cowshed, Byrthen, which became Byre in Old English.
      Where the tonnage of ships was expressed as Burthen, the connection with the
      stalls of a Byre could be seen as, 200 tons or 200 Berths for tuns, casks, of
      wine.
      Today, Berth is used for sleeping places on board ship and for the place
      occupied by a ship when docked or the space it requires when manoeuvring. (As
      in a wide Berth.)
      The Birth connection may have related to pregnancy, which, like carrying a
      Burden, ends in labour, and the 19th and early 20th Century concept of Africa
      and Africans  being the White-man’s Burden, perhaps displays a similar,
      but selfishly distorted and superiorly paternalistic view of the white male
      role in the natural scheme of things. 

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