AT LARGE is a odd expression which has several meanings which are not, at least to me, readily apparent from the common definitions of it constituents AT and LARGE:<“The thieves walked out, shoved the paintings into the back of a black Audi, and drove off. They are still AT LARGE.”—‘U.S. News & World Report, 10 October>
1) free from restraint or confinement; at liberty: <“The murderer is still at large”>, <“The cattle were grazing at large”>.
2) to a considerable extent; at length; in full; fully: <“To treat a subject at large”>
3) a) as a whole; in general, (taken) altogether: <“The country at large”> b) in a general or indefinite way, without precise limits. <“Arrangements made at large.”> c) Without definite aim, plan, or specific application; at random.
4) Representing the whole of a state, district, or body rather than one division or part of it: <“A delegate at large.”>
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable provided the following etymology and, incidentally, was the only source I found which attempted to do so:
AT LARGE: At liberty. The phrase is of French Origin, and ‘prendre le large’ is to sail out to sea so as to be free to move.
I don’t know if I believe that the expression ‘at large,’ was really ‘originally’ French (couldn’t find any confirmation of this). However, the common word ‘large’ did originally comes from the Latin ‘larga,’ feminine of ‘largus,’ ample generous (think ‘largess’), which did pass though Old French and on to Middle English and then to us. But the Brewer’s entry did provide me with the hint that the expression might derive from a nautical term. Searching on nautical expressions involving LARGE, I came upon by and large, which led to quite an interesting detour.
‘TO SAIL LARGE’ is to sail with the wind blowing in a favorable direction which means from the general direction of the stern and in the by and large discussion Michael Quinion of World Wide Words informed us that this came from the idea of something being unrestricted, allowing considerable freedom (as in a fugitive being "at large"), because ships sailing large were able to maintain their direction of travel anywhere in a wide arc without needing to make continual changes to the set of the sails. The implication here is that the word LARGE conveyed the idea of “being unrestricted and allowing considerable freedom” before it ever became a nautical term. And after rummaging through the Oxford English Dictionary (they never did offer an etymology for ‘at large’ although they did provide a definition), I was able to verify (and confirm Quinion’s claim) that this was, indeed, the case – but I never did find the ‘French connection.’
LARGE (sans ‘at’) made its first adverbial appearance in print circa 1400 meaning “freely, unrestrainedly, boldly.”. The first appearance of the adverbial phrase AT LARGE, meaning “at liberty, free, without restraint,” was in 1399 (see quote), although Chaucer had used it in the phrase “at his large,’ meaning ‘at liberty’ a bit earlier in circa 1384 (see quote). So as far as the print record goes, the earliest adverbial appearance of ‘large’ was in ‘at large’ itself. LARGE, the adjective, meaning “having few or no restrictions and thus considerable freedom” appeared in 1510. LARGE, the adverb in the nautical sense described above, made its print debut in 1513, about a century after its first appearance as the adverb meaning ‘freely.’ And its use as the nautical adjective, similar in meaning to the adverb, appeared in 1591. So it is clear that AT LARGE predated any nautical usage of LARGE and predated its distant relative BY AND LARGE (1669) by over two and a half centuries.
(Oxford English Dictionary, Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Merrima-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary)<circa 1384 “While each of hem is AT HIS LARGE, Lyght things upwarde and downwarde charge."—‘The House of Fame’ by Chaucer, II. page 237> [[(1): freely, unrestrained]]
<1399 “He . . . lete him go AT LARGE to lepe where he wolde.”–‘Political Poems and Songs’ (Rolls), I. page 396> [[(1): at liberty, free, without restraint]]
<circa 1400 “one kynge . . . karpes fulle LARGE Be-cause he killyd this kene.”—‘Morte Arthur’ (1784)> [[freely, unrestrainedly]]
<circa 1420 "Hy tyme it is to . . . walke AT LARGE out of [ ]i prisoun.”–‘The Regiment of Princes’ by Hoccleve, page 277> [[(1): at liberty, free, without restraint]]
<1472-3 “As in the said your Letters Patentes therof is conteyned more AT LARGE.”—“Rot. Parliament 12 & 13, IV, §36 [[(2): at length; in full; fully]]
<1588 “So to the Lawes AT LARGE I write my name.”—“Love’s Labor Lost” by Shakespeare, I. i.> [[(3), as a whole; in general, (taken) altogether]]
<1645 “Not only of the commission AT LARGE but so of the quorum.”—‘Good Thoughts in Bad Times’ (1841) by Fuller, page 14> [[(4) representing the whole of a state, district, or body rather than one division or part of it]]
<1667 “Left him AT LARGE to his own dark designs.”—‘Paradise Lost’ by Milton, I. page 213> [[(1): at liberty, free, without restraint]]
<1668 “I'll wait on you some other time, to discourse more AT LARGE of astrology.”—in ‘Works’ (1883), “An Evening’s Love,” II. i. by Dryden, page 287> [[(2), at length; in full; fully]]
<1790 “All punishments are for example towards the conservation of the people AT LARGE.”—‘The French Revolution’ by Burke, V. page 179> [[(3a), as a whole; in general, (taken) altogether]]
<1863 “The pleadings are AT LARGE . . . and do not tend to definite issues.”—‘The Institutions of the English Government” by H. Cox, II. xi. page 569> [[(3c), Without definite aim, plan, or specific application; at random]].
<1874 “In his own day he was the poet of England AT LARGE.”—‘ A Short History of the English People’ by Green, vii. §7, page 415> [[(3a), as a whole; in general, (taken) altogether]]
<1878 “They felt also that Hannibal was still AT LARGE, and it might not be well to drive him to despair.”—‘Carthage and the Carthaginians’ by R. B. Smith, page 353> [[(1): at liberty, free, without restraint]]
<1888 “The additional member or members are elected by the voters of the whole State on a general ticket, and are called ‘representatives AT LARGE.’"—'The American Commonwealth’ by Bryce, I. xiii. page 166> [[(4) representing the whole of a state, district, or body rather than one division or part of it]]
<1890 “The Oxford speech, which Mr. Froude quotes AT LARGE.”—‘The Spectator,’ 1 November, page 59/2> [[(2), at length; in full; fully]]
<1891 "He knows that a single stroke well aimed returns a better result than a score which are delivered AT LARGE."—'Edinburgh Review,''Tales of Rudyard Kipling, July> [[(3c))Without definite aim, plan, or specific application; at random]]
<1993 “Two days earlier, Clinton had nominated him to be ambassador AT LARGE and special adviser to the Secretary of State on the new independent states, a position in which he will help formulate and carry out the Administration's policy toward the former Soviet Union. ‘Time Magazine,’1 February> [[(4) representing the whole of a state, district, or body rather than one division or part of it]]
Ken G – October 9, 2005