Q: I recently screened “WALL-E” and got to thinking about By n Large, the company that made the eponymous robot. What the heck is the origin of the phrase “by and large” and what does it mean?
A: The adverbial phrase “by and large,” meaning generally or for the most part, was originally a seafaring expression.
When a ship was sailing “by” the wind, it was moving toward or into the wind. When a ship was sailing “large,” the wind was coming from abaft the beam (that is, from somewhere in the rear half of the ship).
The expression “by and large,” meaning to the wind as well as off it, was first used in print in 1669, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest recorded use of it was by a 17th-century writer on seamanship, Samuel Sturmy, who said, “Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and learge.”
Obviously the term was in use by sailors before that. A ship that sailed well “by and large” was one that handled nicely in a variety of circumstances.