What Does By and Large Mean?

By and large is a classic English idiom: It has a figurative meaning, and it’s nearly impossible to figure out this definition just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. If you tried to understand the phrase literally, you might guess it means “in the proximity of something big.” But you’d be pretty far off track. Keep reading for the definition of this idiomatic expression and to take a journey back to its nautical origins.

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What Does By and Large Mean?

Simply put, by and large means “in general” or “generally speaking.” It’s another way of saying “on the whole” or “for the most part.” Use it when you want to say that something is generally, although not completely and entirely, true. In other words, write or say this phrase to indicate that a statement is more often true than untrue.

Here are some example sentences using by and large:

  • By and large, we had a great beach vacation: The kids got sunburned and were a little bored, but the weather was beautiful and the ocean was nice and cool.  
  • Studies show that, by and large, most people are inherently good and act cooperatively versus selfishly. 
  • We had a dry spring this year, by and large. Save a few afternoon storms, the days were sunny and clear. 
  • By and large, I love my job: My boss can be a bit demanding, but the hours are flexible and the pay is high. 
  • My business has done well, by and large, during this pandemic. I’ve been able to sell my products successfully online, although not the same quantities. 

The Origins of the Phrase

This expression comes from sailing terminology. It can be a bit difficult for landlubbers (aka folks who know little of the sea) to understand the words by and large in nautical terms. (Just as it’s a tad difficult for this landlubber to explain them!) But here goes: Dating perhaps as far back as the 16th century, by was used to describe a ship sailing into the wind, which is, of course, typically less than desirable. Large, on the other hand, was used to indicate a ship sailing with the wind behind it or at its back—usually a much more desirable positioning. 

That said, a ship could (and can!) still move forward even heading into the wind, at least if handled correctly and in the right positioning to it. After all, a bird can fly against the wind seemingly effortlessly. (The expression full and by meant sailing with full sails and as close to the wind as possible while still being productive.) But, if a sailing ship turned into the wind too much, by too many compass points, the wind would press its sails back and stop the ship in its tracks; to use another common and fitting expression, the ship would be dead in the water. (The wind might possibly even break off its masts!) In this case, it was said the ship was taken aback, another popular idiom, used today to mean “startled” or “surprised.”

In combining the two nautical terms, which appears was a common occurrence beginning in the late 17th century, mariners used by and large to discuss sailing the seas in any and all directions, regardless of the ship’s position to the wind. Being able to sail in this manner made it easier for the ship’s captain and crew to steer and control the ship, particularly in less-than-ideal sailing conditions. The helmsman could steer into the wind when needed and then away from it when needed. Supposedly, sailors also used the expression good by and large to indicate a ship could handle any possible situation. From this notion of sailing in all possible ways in terms of direction of travel and sailing in any situation, the phrase eventually evolved to hold the meaning we know today of “in general.”

An oft-cited article from a 1669 issue of Mariners Magazine used the expression, albeit with a variant spelling of large. Although it was clearly written to mean “in all directions,” you could substitute today’s understanding of the phrase and the sentence would still make sense, illustrating the natural evolution of the saying from maritime expression to common idiom!

“Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul,
by and learge.”

Other Sailing Sayings

By and large isn’t the only idiom with a maritime origin. Here are just a few of the many other popular idiomatic expressions with nautical histories, along with their figurative meanings.

Under the weather: Feeling slightly sick or ill. When sailors or other passengers on a ship felt sick, they would go below deck to feel better and recover. Very often, they felt ill because they were seasick. Seasickness is typically due to bad weather, which churns up rough waves that cause a ship to rock back and forth. Perhaps the rocking was less noticeable to these passengers below deck, or perhaps they just retreated there to escape the bad weather in general. Either way, there’s a strong possibility that sailors and ship passengers going under the deck and thus out of the stormy conditions led to the phrase under the weather and the meaning we most associate with this expression today.

Three sheets to the wind: Being drunk, to the point of being out of control. The ropes or chains that hold tension in a ship’s sails are called sheets. If one were not pulled tight, a sail would flap about. If three on a ship were left to flap in the wind, sails would be waving wildly or uncontrollably, hence how it came to mean a staggering drunkard.

Loose cannon: A person who acts unpredictably. Ships used to carry cannons. Often, those cannons would come loose. Can you think of anything more unpredictable and uncontrolled than a big canning rolling all around on a ship’s deck?! Thus the popular idiom was born. 

Sleep tight: Sleep well. Language experts are less sure of this phrase’s early life at sea than the others above. But nevertheless, some believe the expression originated from the fact that sailors would often have to sleep in precarious ways in a ship’s small and crowded spaces, such as in tiny cots or hammocks. The story goes they would wrap themselves up tightly in blankets so they wouldn’t move around in their sleep and would be less likely to fall out of bed if waters got rough. 

Understanding Idioms

As has already been mentioned and briefly discussed, by and large is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Again, if you tried to understand the phrase by and large literally, you would likely guess it means “close or near something big.” As you now know, it actually means “generally speaking.”

Discover many more idioms here.

Synonyms for By and Large

Of course, there are many other ways to say “in general” or “on the whole,” including the synonyms shared below. A thesaurus will turn up additional options. 

Near antonyms for by and large include completely, entirely, fully, and wholly.

Summary

By and large is a popular English idiom meaning “generally speaking” and “for the most part.” It is used to indicate that something is mostly, although not entirely, true. In other words, although there may be a few exceptions, a statement is factual overall or on the whole.

PS: Speaking of ships, here’s how to properly abbreviate captain.