By and Large-American? English?

Dex wrote his usual well-done answer to a question here. The question wanted to know the origin of the phrase by and large. The questioner aluded to it being American. Dex nicely replied with a quote from British literature.

Since I don’t have an OED at home, but I do have a Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms, Mr. Mathews quotes the Southern Literary Messenger from 1767 as follows: [He] hath made prize of the President’s daughter, Miss Betsey, a charming frigate, that will do honour to our country, if you take her by and large, as the sailors say.

My questions is, since this is an early quote from a US source, does the OED show it earlier in British usage?

C’mon, JeffB. I’m counting on you.

My OED has this to say about “by and large”:

So the earliest cite is 1669, but I don’t know if it’s British or American.


I rather fancy there were no magazines being published in America (let alone specialized ones) in 1669.

I’d think the Wodehouse source would also be a strong indication that the expression was not unknown in England.

I gotta get myself an OED. ::: putting hat on ground and holding sign, “Will Do Etymology for Cash” :::

In 1669 the British Navy would have been a lot bigger and more influential than the American Navy (if indeed there was such a thing at that time). Thus I wouldn’t be surprised to see an expression from the British Navy enter the English language.

“by and large” is from the British Navy; it refers to both cases of a sailing vessel: sailing “by” the wind, or as close into the wind as it can head, or sailing “large”, or off the wind (as in the OED definition above) with the wind abaft the beam, or coming from behind.

So the sense of the phrase is “in all cases”; that is, “The ship sails well both by and large”, evolving into landlubber usage. Wasn’t it Jane Austen who had two brothers who were officers in the Royal Navy?

I don’t recall the exact volume (or maybe I do: “The Ionian Mission”) in which Patrick O’Brian quite clearly specifies the definition (one of his characters, a landsman, misuses it and is set straight): and who could doubt PO’B?

…what I meant to mention was that Dex was wrong in his statement, then, that “by and large” was an order to the helmsman: it would mean steering in two directions at once. The “full and by” order is correct; in essence steer as close to the wind as you can while keeping the sails full.

It is worth noting that in a square-rigger, the upper sails were twisted to be closer to the wind than the lower ones; that way, if the upper sails began to shake, indicating that they were too edge-on to the wind, there was still plenty of wind in the lower sails, thus giving enough warning to prevent being taken aback (another nautical phrase, defined by Dex, which has come into general usage).

Actually, I think SDSTAFF Dex is not quite right this time.

I agree that sailing “by” is sailing close to the wind, but I think
sailing “large” is with the wind, ie with the wind on the ship’s
aft quarter or directly from astern. Sailing ships usually have
some “best point of sailing” so if a ship could outsail
another both “by” and “large” that would cover both extreme
cases, and you can see where our current usage of “by and
large” meaning “in general” might come from.

If “by and large” really meant “close to but not quite” by the wind,
the modern usage is really inexplicable. Furthermore, the
actual interpretation of “close to but not quite” seems open
to debate by the helmsman. Instead, I would imagine
the order would be more like “half a point off the wind” or
somesuch, so as to make the captain’s intentions perfectly clear.

I don’t claim to be a nautical historian, but I can cite some
examples of speech in historical novels such as Patrick O’Brian’s
books, where the helmsman might be commanded “Steer small,
damn you!” meaning that he should keep the ship as close to
the wind as possible. In fact, somewhere in one of those
books I believe it is mentioned that it is impossible to steer
“by and large” at the same time, but possibly I am remembering
a remark from some other source.

PS: Blast! I now see Gummitch has made more or less the same comment
already. Well, I’ve already written this much, so I’m darn well going to
post it anyhow.

The Staff Report was taken from three different works on entomology, cited in the report. I do not myself pretend to have any nautical expertise, but I do note there was some minor discrepancy in the three explanations.

Gummitch or Miramon, if you would like to email me some sources, I would be glad to take a look. Happy to offer a revision if I got it wrong, but I need some sources beyond your thoughts, you understand. No offense. And sorry, but Patrick O’Brien’s historical fiction is not a source. No more would be C. S. Forrester’s. However, they can be indicators since they are usually pretty thorough.

Well, shoot, Dex, no wonder you got it wrong–you was consultin’ the dadburn wrong encycloPEEDjas. Gotta get out the “etymology” references, dude, and put the bug books back under the broken sofa leg.


[sub]the Devil made me post this[/sub]

[blush] Damn. That’s what I get for dealing with Doug and his bug reports so much. [/blush]

[mutter]I wonder if I can edit that post to the correct word before anyone notices… No, no, that would be wrong. [/mutter]

This is why I so rarely make fun of other people’s typos. Sigh.

*Originally posted by RJKUgly *
**My OED has this to say about “by and large”:

That’s it in a nutshell: to steer with the head of the ship close to the direction the wind blows from, and “off it”, meaning in a direction away from the wind. The six points (1 point = 12.5 degrees, 32 points in a circle) is how close a square-rigged ship was generally considered to be able to lie to the wind.

I am not a sailing maven, but I was a Quartermaster in the USN for 16 years, so I know the basics (even, or despite, being in submarines) of wind and wave, and certainly of steering, etc. I insert here a shameless plug for my site,, which coincidentally has an image of a QM at the helm of a sailing vessel. And may I point out that submarines, after all, have sails :wink:

I am a rabid devourer of O’Brian, and yes, Forester (I can blame the latter not only for my joining the service, but for the rate I chose), and I purchased a book to help me understand the terms, rigging, etc.: “The Lore of Sail” a “comprehensive and authoritave guide”: it says so, right there. This is where I got the twisting of the sails; reading the section now, it also says that is done because the lower sails cannot be set as flat as the upper sails, and the warning bit is an extra benefit, rather than the primary reason.

Looking in it for “by and large”, I see an illustration of a bark on various courses, including


…there is also an illustration of sailing on the wind and going large on the starboard tack; in either case, “on the wind” is as close as it will lie to the wind, and “going large” is (in the illustrations) with the wind at an angle of about 120 degrees (by calibrated eyeball) from the head of the ship.

Incidentally, there is also an illustration of small-boat handlin, involving going about, in which step one is “Keep her full and by”.

AHA! Links:

<sigh> I have been scouring the web and can’t find anything more than that: nothing that uses the words “sailing large”; so we’re left with the OED and my book, here.

Double <sigh>. I’m glad I caught this myself: 360/32 = 11.25 = 1 point.

I have stopped my grog for a week, as punishment.