#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
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
Two separate terms, not one single phrase
The following etymology of the phrase “by & large” is by Gary Martin at his fascinating website phrases.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 phrases.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, depositphoto.com
Facts: phrases.org.uk—interesting bio of author Gary Martin
Note: “&” replaces “and” in most or all text, including quotations, headlines & titles.
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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 email@example.com.
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