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By and large

Q From Dave McClatchey: Where does the term by and large come from?

A It’s a nautical expression, from sailing ship days.

With by and large the modern landlubber means “in general; on the whole; everything considered; for the most part”. When you start to read up on the origin, it’s easy to get confused because dictionary editors and writers on word origins (this one included) have a lot of trouble understanding the terminology. With the help of books like William Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine of 1769, I think I’ve sorted matters out.

Imagine a ship at sea travelling west. If the wind were blowing from exactly north or south, sideways on, it was said to be on the beam (the beam being the side of the ship at its widest point, usually by the mainmast). If the wind was blowing from any point in the half-circle eastward of the line from north to south, from nearer the stern, the ship was said to be sailing large. This comes from the idea of something being unrestricted, allowing considerable freedom (as in a fugitive being “at large”), because ships sailing large were able to maintain their direction of travel anywhere in a wide arc without needing to make continual changes to the set of the sails.

To some extent sailing ships were able to make progress into the wind, that is, with it blowing from forward of the beam. Those with good handling capabilities could get within five or six points of the wind (there are 32 compass points in a complete circle). In such cases, the ship was said to be sailing by the wind, by here having the sense of “towards”. If the ship were pointed closely into the wind, but with some margin for error in case the wind changed direction slightly, it was said to be full and by (sailing by the wind with her sails full of wind), or close-hauled, because the lower corners of the main sails were all drawn as close as possible down to her side to windward. If the helmsman by mistake turned the ship closer to the direction of the wind than it was capable of sailing, the wind would press the sails back against the masts, stopping the ship dead in the water and possibly breaking the masts off; in this case the ship was taken aback, the maritime source of another common metaphor.

You will appreciate that a ship could either sail large or it could sail by the wind, but never both at the same time. The phrase by and large in sailors’ parlance referred to all possible points of sailing, so it came to mean “in all possible circumstances”. You can see how that could have become converted in layman’s language into a sense of “all things being considered”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Mar. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 March 2004.