#171 By & Large

#171 By & Large
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How “by & large” sailed into the English language 

Many phras­es are incor­rect­ly assumed to be of nau­ti­cal ori­gin just because they sound like mariners’ lingo.

How­ev­er, “by & large” real­ly was a nau­ti­cal term which orig­i­nat­ed in the days of sail­ing ships.

Today the phrase “by & large” means
on the whole
gen­er­al­ly speak­ing
all things considered

But cen­turies ago “by & large” referred to sail­ing into the wind & off it, as explained below, mak­ing it eas­i­er to steer the ship. By the ear­ly 1700s the phrase had been broad­ened to mean
in one direc­tion & anoth­er
& even­tu­al­ly today’s most com­mon def­i­n­i­tion
in gen­er­al

Two separate terms, not one single phrase

The fol­low­ing ety­mol­o­gy of the phrase “by & large” is by Gary Mar­tin at his fas­ci­nat­ing web­site phras​es​.org​.uk:

To get a sense of the orig­i­nal mean­ing of the phrase we need to under­stand the nau­ti­cal terms ‘by’ & ‘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, & Dis­cov­er­ies of the Eng­lish Nation, 1591:

When the wind came larg­er we waied anchor & set saile.”

When the wind is in that favourable ‘large’ direc­tion the largest square sails may be set & 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:

Thus you see the ship han­dled in fair weath­er & foul, by & learge.”

To sail ‘by & large’ required the abil­i­ty to sail not only as ear­li­er square-​rigged ships could do, that is, down­wind, but also against the wind. At first sight, & for many non-​sailors I’m sure sec­ond & third sight too, it seems impos­si­ble that a sail­ing ship could progress against the wind. They can though. The physics behind this is bet­ter left to oth­ers. Suf­fice it to say that it involves the use of tri­an­gu­lar sails, which act like aero­plane wings & pro­vide a force that drags the ship side­ways against the wind; by this tech­nique & by care­ful angling of the rud­der the ship can make progress towards the wind.

The 19th cen­tu­ry wind­jam­mers like Cut­ty Sark were able to main­tain progress ‘by & large’ even in bad wind con­di­tions by the use of many such aero­dy­nam­ic tri­an­gu­lar sails & large crews of able sea­men.
Copy­right © Gary Mar­tin | Con­tact Gary Martin

I am grate­ful to Gary Mar­tin for cre­at­ing phras​es​.org​.uk, the inter­net’s largest pub­lic resource for such mate­r­i­al. Not only does he define each phrase, but goes deep into its etymology. 

My father, Andrew DeS­i­mone, was fas­ci­nat­ed with words, since he immi­grat­ed from Sici­ly & want­ed to mas­ter the Eng­lish lan­guage (which he did with a slight Ital­ian accent). I remem­ber our huge red Web­ster’s dic­tio­nary — it must have been six inch­es thick & well-worn.

In fact, it was when Dad­dy sat me on his lap when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, & point­ed out the words in a book, that I took an inter­est in words, too. How­ev­er, I was more fas­ci­nat­ed in the let­ter­forms, & that’s what start­ed my let­ter­ing, typog­ra­phy & graph­ic design career. Here’s a sto­ry about that.

Production notes for #171 By & Large:
Original size: 20x30 inches
Program: Adobe Photoshop
Ampersand: Goudy Oldstyle (altered)
Photo: Iurii, deposit​pho​to​.com
Facts: phras​es​.org​.uk—interesting bio of author Gary Martin

Note: &” replaces “and” in most or all text, including quotations, headlines & titles.
You may repost the image & article. Please credit Amper​Art​.com.
To download a full-​size high-​resolution 11x17-​inch poster suitable for printing & framing, click on the image.

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Chaz DeS­i­mone, design­er & typog­ra­ph­er, is the cre­ator of Amper­Art & own­er of Des­i­mone Design. He was adding ser­ifs to let­ters when he was just a lit­tle brat scrib­bling on walls. Now he’s a big brat & his entire career is design, so long as each project requires the most sophis­ti­cat­ed, log­i­cal, cap­ti­vat­ing results. Con­tact him at chaz@​desimonedesign.​com.

Thank you for sub­scrib­ing to Chaz’s per­son­al design project, Amper­Art. Men­tion you read all the way to the bot­tom here & receive a tru­ly incred­i­ble graph­ic design gift when you con­tact Chaz.

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