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I was listening to the radio and something caught my attention. The news journalist made the comment, “The suspect is still at‑large.”

It got me thinking...

First, I can only assume that the proper spelling is “at‑large” instead of “at large” because using the adjective term “large” as a noun doesn’t make any sense in this context (at least in my head). Naturally I try googling it only to find further confusion in context of a suspect.

So, how did this term come to mean “out and about”, or “free”, or some other word(s) that would describe some suspect not in custody?

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An editor-at-large is one with more liberties to choose what they write about. – Hugo Apr 19 '13 at 22:09
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Large is a word with considerable history and many meanings, including "Having few or no restrictions or limitations; allowing considerable freedom. Also said of persons with respect to their thought or action" (OED, sense I, 11a). At large (with no hyphen) is an idiom stemming from this, meaning at liberty. It is possible to say at more large, meaning 'at greater liberty' or to use the verb enlarge to mean 'set free'; but these two are rare and not to be used without care.

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"At large" is not hyphenated in this context (the suspect is at large). But there are phrases such as "ambassador-at-large" where the entire phrase is hyphenated. This means something like "a roaming ambassador", i.e. one not attached to a single country, but who plays a wider global advisory role on an issue. ("Ambassador-at-large for human rights", etc.)

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