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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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.
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".
Sailing term yes. I am not only sailor but a certified (American Sailing Association or ASA) sailing instructor. These are two words with two different meanings 1. Sailing "BY" the wind is directional. It means "Into the wind" (typically 90 to 45 degrees off the eye of the wind (no one can sail directly into the wind). 2. Sailing "Large" is All (or most) of the sails are deployed ("unfurled" or raised).
Two possible meanings: 1. Sailing into the wind with all the sails fully deployed. But... some sails only work downwind. But if not so equipped, it would be for very light wind. Basically making the most of what you've got. Not really how we hear "By & Large" used. 2. On a long journey, one typically will sail both by the wind and downwind. Sailing downwind is much easier than sailing upwind. Downwind the sails are set with little adjustment and the waves are pushing you along and typically, all the sails can be used. Conversely, upwind is pounding against the oncoming waves and takes constant crew adjustment by the sail trimmers and the helmsman. It is a much rougher ride of all on board. So if asked (in 1800), "How was your trip to England and back?" You could say, "By and Large" it was *** (what every). It is a mix of the rough going with the easy going, more or less in other words.