Earlier this month, a giant, five-story tunnel boring machine dubbed Bertha got stuck in Seattle. The cause of what’s stopping the machine is still unknown as crews try to reach the block, but there’s a facet of the story that got us wondering: Why are so many big things nicknamed “Bertha”?
There doesn’t appear to be a single answer to this (we suspect it’s a combination of several origins), but we’ve pulled together several options that could describe the history of how “Big Bertha” came to be.
But first, the name Bertha itself has German origins. According to Behind the Name, Bertha is short for “beraht,” which means “bright, famous.” The name was popularized in the 8th century because it was Charlemagne’s mother. It was also more popular in the late 1800s.
Big Bertha — the weapon
During World War I, the Germans developed a heavy artillery howitzer. According to encyclopedia Britannia, Big Bertha’s were “the largest and most powerful artillery produced to that time.”
“According to some sources, the nickname for the guns was bestowed by the Krupps in honour of Frau Bertha von Bohlen, head of the family,” Britannica stated. “In popular usage, the name Big Bertha was also applied to the extreme long-range cannons with which the Germans shelled Paris in 1918, but these guns are more properly known as Paris Guns.”
Watch a video about the gun:
‘Berth’ — the nautical connection
The Online Etymology Dictionary speculated that the nautical use of the term “berth” could be related to “bear” in terms of its definitions of strength. Here’s more from the dictionary:
Original sense is preserved in phrase to give (something or someone) wide berth. Meaning “place on a ship to stow chests, room for sailors” is from 1706; extended to non-nautical situations by 1778.
A berth can also be a space where a ship can dock. One could make the connection that a berth would be rather large to fit a ship.
In all these cases, “berth” would imply something big.
Other famous namesakes
A 19th century woman who was Prussian born as Bertha Heyman earned the nicknamed “Big Bertha” and was known as a criminal swindler in America. A story published by the New York Times in 1883 described Heyman as “the boldest most expert of the many female adventuresses who infest the country.”
A Big Bertha character also appeared in Nitendo’s SuperMario game as a type of mother fish, carrying baby fish, called Cheep-Cheep, in her mouth.
Marvel Comics too had a Big Bertha character, who was a member of the superhero group called the Great Lakes Champions. The talent of this superhero, whose human name was Ashley Crawford, is to transform from a model to an obese woman.
Bertha von Sutter was a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1905, the first woman to ever win the award, and Bertha Mason was a character in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” appearing as Mr. Rochester’s secret, crazy and locked up wife.
Have any other theories? Let us know. And pass the story on to see if others do, too.