Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
In most situations, when the word large is employed, it’s an adjective indicating something sizeable: a tall man, a wide expanse, a seven-figure fortune, an infinity. But we’ve also heard about a suspect being “at large,” a phrase which doesn’t on the surface make grammatical sense. The preposition at requires an object — a noun or pronoun — so what gives with dropping an adjective into that spot?
The answer, of course, can be found in the words’ history.
Both words trace back to the Latin largus, which, when used to describe on object, meant “abundant, plentiful, bountiful,” but when used to describe a person meant “generous, liberal in giving.” Obviously, the “bountiful” sense became (by the 13th century, via Old French) the English adjective large that we use most often to describe, for example, a large field, a large ego, or large number of angry armadillos.
But the sense of “generous” persisted as well. At about the same time we start to find large in English texts, we also find largesse “generosity,” again from French.
Meanwhile, the “generous” sense of large didn’t just disappear; it changed. When someone spends generously, it might seem to others as if they are living without restraint, at least financially. By the late 14th century, large also took on the sense of “liberty, freedom from restraint” (especially freedom from imprisonment). That means, in this sense, large is a noun, which is what we’ve been looking for.
Today, at large is a phrase we often hear in newscasts to describe a suspected felon whom we should be on the lookout for. He is at large because he hasn’t yet been caught and restrained.
But other people can be at large too, and without the felonious implications. On a city council, for example, most of the councillors are responsible for (or answer to, depending on how you look at it) a specific area or neighborhood. But there may also be at-large seats on some councils, held by people who contribute but who aren’t tied to a specific part of town. Similarly, in newspapers, dictionaries, and other publications, while some editors focus on specific topics or areas — say, sports or science — others are considered editors-at-large and are available more generally to contribute where they’re needed.
And then there’s the phrase living large. This idiom doesn’t refer to the physical size of a person’s lifestyle — imagine Lemuel Gulliver buying a house in Brobdingnag — but to the unrestrained lavishness or generosity of their spending, harking back to a centuries-old sense of the word large.
May we all get the opportunity to live large and at large.
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