by and large

By and large is nautical in origin, originally referring to the sailing qualities of a vessel.

To sail by the wind is to sail directly into the wind (or as close into the wind as is possible). A large wind is one that comes from the stern quarter (on a square-rigged vessel, if the wind is directly astern only the rear sails catch it, therefore the most favorable wind comes from slightly off one side where it will fill all the sails). Therefore, a ship that sails well by and large sails well in all directions.

The nautical sense dates to 1669, from Samuel Sturmy’s Mariner’s Magazine:

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

The general sense, meaning in one direction in another, in all ways, on the whole, was evident by 1833, in John Neal’s Down-Easters:

A man who feels rather perplexed on the whole, take it by and large.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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