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shameless pleading

Al large

We’ll bait the trap with black coffee and blue pencils.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the phrase “at large” as in “editor-at-large” or “the fugitive is at large.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) indicates that “at one’s large” to mean “at liberty” has been in use since the 14th century, but how did this come to refer to editors?  And what does it currently mean? — Jackie.

Editors? I thought they were extinct. If they’re really running around “at large,” I wish someone would round them up and send them to the internet. Have you seen it lately? Even the websites of established print journals are full of typographical errors and half-baked edits that produce gibberish. Oh well, I’m probably paying too much attention to this stuff.

Living out in the country, I pay special attention to the phrase “at large” because rarely a month passes around here without a fugitive miscreant “at large” being apprehended loping through the corn. And then there was the “exotic animal collector” who released lions and tigers and bears down the road from us last year. There’s nothing like hearing that Bengal tigers are “at large” in your area to focus the mind (specifically on other, saner places to live).

“Large” is an interesting word because its original meaning in English is now obsolete, but it remains an exceptionally common word in senses that developed after its first appearance. When “large” appeared in English in the late 12th century, it meant “generous, lavish, bountiful,” reflecting its source in the Latin “largus” meaning “abundant and lavish.” This sense, now obsolete, developed into meaning “ample” or “copious,” and from there came into use in spatial descriptions meaning “roomy, spacious, etc.” From that “roomy” sense most of our modern uses of “large” developed, including “large” in various senses denoting great size as well as “large” in figurative senses describing the fullness or great substance of something, from “largeness of heart” (“That uxorious King, whose heart though large, Beguil’d by fair Idolatresses, fell To Idols foul,” Milton, 1667) to the “largeness” of more worldly treasures (“He made large profits on some articles, but his business did not pay on the whole,” 1902).

Meanwhile, that early sense of “large” meaning “roomy, spacious” had sprouted a slightly different branch of “large” in the sense of “free, unrestricted, without limitation.” Thus to be “large of circumstances” meant to have enough money to be able to live free of want or worry (“Many families who the last week were in large circumstances, were now reduced to beggary,” 1738), a sense still found in the US slang phrase “to live large,” meaning “to be wealthy and spend extravagantly.” In nautical use, a wind blowing from behind the ship was “large” because it provided freedom and ease of navigation to the vessel; to sail “by” the wind, on the other hand, was to sail into the wind, a trickier business. “By and large” as a nautical term meant “in any possible circumstance,” and eventually came to be used ashore to mean “in most cases; for the most part.”

This use of “large” to mean “free and easy; without restraint” gave us “at large” in several senses. The phrase first appeared around 1400 in the sense of literally “free, without restraint” (“Here walk’d the Fiend at large in spacious field,” Milton, 1667), still used in news stories about fugitives. “At large” was also, beginning in the 17th century, used to mean “in general, not in any particular sense,” a use now most familiar in “at-large delegate,” etc., meaning one who represents, for example, a whole state rather than one particular town or region. This brings us to “editor at large,” “writer at large” and similar phrases which simply mean that the person is “free”  to pursue projects or topics covering a wide range, often of their own design, rather than to simply fulfill assignments.

1 comment to Al large

  • Charlie Fox

    I personally believe that spell checkers were the doom of newspapers. With computerized spelling verification the editor no longer needed to peruse a story before printing. A story in print often had the wrong word properly spelled; “the steak had a lot of grizzle in it” read one restaurant review. Had I owned the dining establishment I would have insisted on a retraction for saying my gristly steak contained gray hair.

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