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The idiomatic phrase by and large means

largely; generally; mostly

The two earliest usages listed in Google's ngram, from 1812 and 1837, appear to use it in its current form and meaning.

What is the origin of this phrase?

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Perhaps the earliest known use of 'by and large' in print is from 1669. Here is another link. –  medica Jun 12 '14 at 12:55
I just know "Buy n Large" :D –  Ooker Jun 12 '14 at 13:31
This is one of many phrases of nautical origin that people use idiomatically with no understanding of the original meaning. "Give some leeway" is similarly common; "leeway" is the result of unavoidable sideways deviation of a ship from its intended course, which must be considered when steering towards an upwind mark. –  Eric Lippert Jun 12 '14 at 17:49
"Taken aback" is another -- idiomatically meaning to be surprised by an unexpected negative event. A sailcraft is "taken aback" when - typically due to sudden wind shift or poor handling while turning towards the wind - it is being blown backwards with the wind on the wrong side of the sails. This is particularly dangerous when the ship is square-rigged. –  Eric Lippert Jun 16 '14 at 21:41

2 Answers 2

up vote 22 down vote accepted

by and large: it appears to have a nautical origin:

To get a sense of the original meaning of the phrase we need to understand the nautical terms 'by' and 'large'.

'Large' is easier, so we'll start there. When the wind is blowing from some compass point behind a ship's direction of travel then it is said to be 'large'*. Sailors have used this term for centuries; for example, this piece from Richard Hakluyt's The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1591: "When the wind came larger we waied anchor and set saile." When the wind is in that favourable 'large' direction the largest square sails may be set and the ship is able to travel in whatever downwind direction the captain sees fit.

'By' is a rather more difficult concept for landlubbers like me. *In simplified terms it means '*in the general direction of'. Sailors would say that to be 'by the wind' is to face into the wind or within six compass points of it.

The earliest known reference to 'by and large' in print is from Samuel Sturmy, in The Mariners Magazine, 1669.

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I wonder if this usage of 'large' could have any relation to the French expression au large de, which means 'off the coast of'. –  David Conrad Jun 12 '14 at 21:54
@DavidConrad: Littré and the TLF dictionary do not list any sense that would support this. 'Large' means essentially 'wide' or 'broad' in French, 'au large' could be transposed as "wide of the shore". –  Joce Jun 13 '14 at 15:09
@Joce The TLF does have "Au large (de + subst.). Au delà (de), à distance (de)" and gives an example from Verne with "au large du littoral", but that just means "beyond" or "at a distance from", not "offshore". But I have seen it used that way, and wordreference.com translates it that way and has discussions of native speakers using it in that sense. –  David Conrad Jun 13 '14 at 17:17
But that may suggest it's a more recent development, and unlikely to be the source of the English expression. –  David Conrad Jun 13 '14 at 17:18
It's difficult to specify PoS for large in Hakluyt's 'the wind came larger': adverb or predicative adjective. 'By' seems to be an adverb (it's certainly an adverbial usage here, but some would claim it's a prime example of an intransitive preposition). 'And' usually only coordinates equivalents (PoS's, clauses ...). –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 14 '14 at 10:41

Wikipedia states:

By means into the wind, while large means with the wind. "By and large" is used to indicate all possible situations "the ship handles well both by and large".

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