What’s in a phrase: The meaning of ‘By and Large.’

Guest post

In our everyday vernacular, we have a tendency to use phrases and expressions to augment or conversations. Whilst many of these are self evident in their meaning, others have a more obscure origin. We will look at one such example below that is still in regular use, but is not immediately obvious in its origin.

“By and large”

A great many terms are incorrectly assumed to be nautical in origin, simply because they sound like old time sailors parlance. The example given above, is actually grounded in maritime terminology.

To begin with, we need to look at the nautical import of the two terms ‘by’ and ‘large’.

“Large’ is the more straight forward so we will begin there. When the wind is blowing from a compass point behind the direction of a ships travel, it is thus said to be ‘large’, and this has been used by sailors for many centuries. We find it expressed in Richard Hakluyt’s work, The Principall Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation of 1591.  
“when the wind came larger, we waied anchor and set saile”

If the wind is then in that more favourable, large direction, the main square sails can be set, and the ship can then easily travel in any downwind direction.

The term ‘By’ is slightly more complicated, but in simple terms it means ‘in the general direction of’. For example sailors would say that they are ‘by the wind’, and they mean facing into it within about six compass points.

The earliest printed reference to ‘By and Large’ is found in The Mariners Magazine of 1669, “Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and large”.

To sail ‘By and large’ required the ability to sail not only with the wind, but also against it, and without getting into the technical physics of sailing against the wind, it involves the use of triangular shaped sails which act in a similar manner to aero plane wings and create a force that drags the ship sideways against the wind. So in summary, the great 19th century windjammers such as the famous Cutty Sark were able to maintain progress ‘by and large’, even in poor conditions with the use of many sets of triangular sails and skilled crews.


– Isherman

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