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TWTS: "Large" occupies a large space in our lexicon

It's clearly different to talk about a large country and the country at large, but these two meanings of "large" are historically related.

A listener named Edward Kudla recently wrote to us with a "large question." Edward wanted to know about the various ways we can use "large" including, "I wear a large shirt," and "the escaped convict is at large."

By and large, we were glad to look into “large.”

"Large" was borrowed from Anglo-Norman and Old French and shows up in English by the 1200s. Its earliest meanings include "liberal," "generous," and "giving.” These early meanings are connected to words like “largesse” and phrases like “living large.”

Early meanings also show us "large" in the familiar sense of great in size, amount or degree. It can be used to refer to something that's broad or wide, includes many people, or is heavy, important or significant.

"Large" also delves into nautical territory, specifically old-timey sailor parlance. Basically, in talking about the wind, "the wind large" meant the wind was crossing the line of a ship's course in a favorable direction. "By the wind" referred to sailing into or toward the wind.

The phrase "by and large" referred to all possible points of sailing or all possible circumstances. Today, this phrase means something closer to "all things considered" or "in general."

It's safe to say that "large" covers a large territory in our lexicon. To hear about how the phrase "at-large" fits into all of this, listen to the audio above.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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