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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?

  • An editor-at-large is one with more liberties to choose what they write about. – Hugo Apr 19 '13 at 22:09
  • Also, Geraldo at large, as in Geraldo Rivera freely reporting on anything he damn well pleases. – Devil07 Sep 27 '17 at 17:28
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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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  • I would note that in French large means ‘wide’; someone who is at large has a wide range of motion. – Anton Sherwood Oct 20 '19 at 7:20
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Large is an old sailing term - (actually, we still use it on tall ships. When the wind is behind your boat (abaft the beam), it is called “sailing large.” In this favourable 'large' direction the square sails are set and the ship is able to travel in whatever downwind direction the captain wants, so “at large” would mean free to run with few obstructions - like a criminal at large. (The opposite of "sailing large" is calling sailing “by the wind” or “by the bowline,” and involves using the non-square fore and aft sails to tack into the wind. The sheets (lines attached to the control corners of these sails) are tied with bowlines ( bowline is pronounced bolin) . So, a trip planned to include both upwind and downwind sailing would “by and large” get you to your destination.

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  • Hi Chris, welcome to EL&U. This is a fascinating answer, but it's lacking one thing: authority. Without supporting references, it could be just a clever deceit or urban myth. You could guarantee your answer of upvotes (including mine!) if you edit your post to add an authoritative reference, preferably hyperlinked to the source. For more guidance, see How to Answer. :-) – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Oct 26 '18 at 4:52
  • I think Chappo is too severe; 'sailing large' is a phrase well-known enough afloat to pass without a link. But it's true that the origin of 'by and large' is disputed, and a reference would improve it. More important, alas, is that the question is specifically about "at large" , and referring to another use of large is not really an answer. – Tim Lymington Nov 3 '18 at 9:59
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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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At large has been used to define, "as a whole". When you use the word, "large", it automatically encompasses somewhat an imaginary definition of "very huge" or "very big". The power of a word, when spelt out, is so strong that in a trice, it invokes the hidden meaning of that particular word. Suppose you tell a child that "I will give you a small piece of bread", then, it may scowl its face, as not being satisfied. On the contrary, when you say that "I will give you a big piece of cake", its face will be blooming with smiles. This is how the expression of words acts as an incentive or disincentive. Similarly, "at large" is used both in positive and negative ways (e.g. The fugitive was at large or He is an Ambassador-at-large" like Henry Kissienger.). Similarly, words, depending on their usage coupled with circumstances, may invigorate. There is a very good couplet in Tamil language, which asserts that the wound inflicted by a word can never get healed whilst that caused by fire will get cured sooner or later.

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  • 4
    Welcome to ELU. While poetic, this is not really a good answer to the question of the origins of at large. Please take the time to look at some other upvoted answers and get a sense of what we're looking for here. – David M Oct 20 '19 at 3:28

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