Word Matters Podcast

What does it mean to be 'at large'?

Word Matters, Episode 81

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First, we'll look at how 'at large' came to be applied to editors, criminals, and sometimes the world itself. Then, we'll trace the word 'large' itself. It's kind of a big deal.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, just what is an editor at large? I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspects of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Enlarging something was not always about making it bigger. In fact, for Shakespeare, it meant something else entirely. That something else makes perfect sense when you recognize some of the word's close relations. Peter explains.

Peter Sokolowski: Sometimes I get asked what it means to be an editor at large, writer at large, selectman at large, counselor at large. These are titles, but they do have a kind of funny circularity. In other words, it means that you don't have a specific assignment, and yet people also wonder about the specificity of that title. What does it mean if it means that you don't have a specific assignment?

Emily Brewster: It almost seems like they're everywhere. They're all encompassing.

Ammon Shea: I thought the large just referred to either ambition or something like that.

Peter Sokolowski: But it is true that the more you think about it, the less it makes sense, or you could say an escaped prisoner is still at large and that's the same two words. Do they mean the same thing, but it does sort of have this specificity that we all sort of intuit, but we don't always know. And people have asked me... My title happens to be Editor at Large. It's a great title. It's a title I see in other publications. It's not super common in lexicography as far as I know. But one of the things about this term is that we have to kind of step back lexically to look at the word enlarge, I think is the best way to understand this because enlarge as a verb, we understand to mean "to make larger." But if you look in our own definition in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, it says "to set free."

So to enlarge means to set free. When I saw that, it made me think of my first experience of being serious about Shakespeare or seeing a kind of cool movie of Shakespeare, which was Henry V, the Kenneth Branagh Henry V. And I remember this line and I remember it because I thought it was vaguely menacing in the language of Shakespeare's day because the king Henry V, he's in armor, they're approaching a battlefield and he says, "enlarge the man committed yesterday that railed against our person," and given the medieval context of this, I thought this referred to some kind of awful torture.

Emily Brewster: Right? This person is railed against our person.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, whatever your imagination goes to, some kind of torture device that could only be imagined in this context.

Emily Brewster: Thank you for not taking us all the way there. I really do appreciate that.

Peter Sokolowski: And yet but the next line of which I also didn't understand because it goes by very quickly, if you watch it as a movie. "We consider it was excess of wine that set him on" and it turns out the king was being generous. "Enlarge the man committed yesterday, that railed against our person, we consider it was excess of wine that set him on." So someone was drunk. He insulted the king, they arrested him. And the king is now saying, let him go, set him free, "to set free" is our definition. And that's the meaning of enlarge that we have to expand upon or kind of consider when we think of at large, in other words, the idea is more connected to freedom than to size

Ammon Shea: Peter. When you're at a conference and people ask you, what does it mean that you're an editor at large? Don't you just tell them something like, it means that after years of captivity in our Springfield office, I'm finally free. They've let me go. I've escaped from Western Massachusetts.

Peter Sokolowski: It's so great that there are these parallel affinities of these forms. It is true. You can make a joke about that. The freedom of movement is one thing, but also really what it refers to of course is freedom of assignment in some important way.

Emily Brewster: I do have to point out that for many years, you really were the only editor who went anywhere.

Peter Sokolowski: That's true.

Ammon Shea: It was freedom of movement.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, in a pre-pandemic age, it was an exciting thing. And I have to say, I love the idea of going to conferences and meeting people and people who care about words and dictionaries. That was a part of my job that is on hold while we're in a pandemic setting.

Emily Brewster: And also to clarify, most of us other editors don't actually want to go anywhere else.

Peter Sokolowski: It is true that in my case, there's a weird parallel confluence of meaning that we can talk about for sure. But thinking of enlarge as a verb, there's also the noun enlargement that was used in Shakespeare. Also, Henry VI, "at our enlargement, what are thy due fees?" In other words, when we are ransomed, set free, because someone has paid a ransom, that was the sense of enlargement in this case. And in the King James Bible, it's used in a very similar way in the book of Esther, "for if thou altogether holds value peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place." So it means freedom, Liberty. And it's kind of a fascinating history for this word that we associate with size as opposed to freedom.

Emily Brewster: Right? These meanings of at large and enlarge, make me think of the word largesse, which means "generosity."

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. What's interesting about that is generosity, largesse, contains the notion also though of freedom or lack of financial constraints, and it's not about having a large amount of money, it's about being free with the money that you have. So those are sort of two ways to approach that. I have to say that like you probably, I always thought of it as having to do with an amount, you have a large amount of money and your largesse derives from that, but it actually comes from the idea of liberty or freedom with that money.

Emily Brewster: Right, No, I picture the handfuls of cash and they're just like flying out to those in need.

Peter Sokolowski: That's sort of an interesting idea. There was a sense of the word large that is now obsolete that had to do with behavior lacks in conduct loose, or course or vulgar. So large living, living large may have had something to do with this, but large also had another meaning, which is kind of out of date, which is obsolete, which was simply well to do so. Living large meant living like a rich person.

Emily Brewster: That other one though makes me think back to the Shakespeare who insulted the king after having too much wine, right? He was large.

Peter Sokolowski: He was large. And that had to do again, large had this meaning imposing few or no restrictions, allowing considerable freedom free of an obligation or responsibility, but that could also lead to misbehavior obviously, but well, to do that's where living large comes from so large in that sense had nothing to do with size or scope, it had to do with this idea of wealth. And that's a sense that has really passed from active use. We don't use the word large that way anymore, except in that idiom living large.

And that's the way that a lot of older or obsolete senses do stay with us like at first blush, which has nothing to do with the blush on your skin. It has to do with the word blush in Old English meant "look" or "regard." So at first glance is really what it meant, and we still have at first blush in English, but it doesn't refer to the modern sense of the word blush. It refers to some archaic one. And that's true with living large. It doesn't mean "great in size," but this idea of large meaning "free" is behind the expression at large, a criminal who was at large is one who's not in custody. That is to say still free. Chaucer, in the late 1300s, did use the expression at one's large with the meaning of a prisoner, not in custody. So a prisoner having been set free or, or having escaped.

Emily Brewster: When I think of the phrase at large, I often attach it to world at large. When we speak of the world at large, we mean the world as a whole or a nation at large is the nation as a whole. It always makes me think of the Modest Mouse song "World at Large." You guys Modest Mouse fans? There's a song from the 2004 album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. It's a very good album, "ice age, heat wave, can't complain, if the world's at large, should I remain walked away to another planet going to find another place, maybe when I can stand." It's a little grim. World at large.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah and that is the same meaning.

Ammon Shea: We don't have the correlate at small, but there was a 2007 book of essays, a lovely, lovely book by Anne Fadiman, who's one of my favorite writers, which was At Large and At Small. She looks at a familiar aspect of life and writes essays on it, which I recommend unreservedly as well.

Emily Brewster: Oh, I love that. That's a great idea. You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster stay tuned for more lexical largesse. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code matters at checkout that's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S, shop.miriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea, do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at Word Matters at M-W.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: There's more to say about the word large, including what we said before we had it. I was thinking also about how large meaning great in size only dates to the 13th century, the word big dates to the 14th century, and that's thought to be Scandinavian likely. So I was looking at what words we used before we had either big or large.

Peter Sokolowski: And this is one of the most fertile synonymous lexical regions in the English language. We have more words for big things, right? We have ginormous and enormous and giant and huge. Large in French just means wide, by the way, it just means wide. It doesn't mean the way we use it. That would be [foreign language 00:10:17]. The word grand would be mean big, but large just means wide. And it's an interesting limitation. That's been put on it in modern French, at least in English. We have so many words for big don't we?

Emily Brewster: Yeah. And according to the historical thesaurus, the Oxford University Press's Historical Thesaurus. The words we had in Old English were great, which we still have. Of course, mickle, M-I-C-K-L-E, which is still used in Scottish English and Northern English. And apparently according to the historical thesaurus, there's a single example in DARE from 20th-century New England.

Ammon Shea: That was me. I did.

Emily Brewster: You're not in New England and then there's also unlittle.

Peter Sokolowski: Unlittle, and little is Old English too. I assume. Isn't that interesting that they lexicalized little that way. Unlittle.

Emily Brewster: It is. But I love to think about a thousand years ago, if you wanted to say big, or you wanted to say large, you would only say great, mickle, or unlittle.

Peter Sokolowski: You wouldn't say large.

Ammon Shea: And Peter, when you mentioned that we have this semantically rich or this very fertile ground of synonyms. It reminded me that when enormous first came out on the scene, it was not entirely obvious that it was used for size. It was e- plus norm. It was a deviation, it was abnormal. It was unusual. And in many cases it was used just to mean "monstrous" or "bad," which is always kind of amusing to me because people loved to claim that enormity should only mean something bad and you should use enormousness for something that's just large. But the original meaning of enormousness was in fact, "monstrous wickedness." And these are all relatively recent words. These are all within the last 500 years or so.

Peter Sokolowski: So. So outside of the norm, e-norm. Like egregious means "outside of the herd" originally. And it is fascinating to take these words apart and see them, etymologically, how they originally came into the language.

Emily Brewster: A related very new, recent coinage is not at all ambiguous. And that is the word embiggen.

Peter Sokolowski: Embiggen with a E-M right? Embiggen.

Emily Brewster: E-M-B-I-G-G-E-N. This is a word that we entered in our dictionary in 2018, but it was coined on The Simpsons. The show was "Lisa the Iconoclast." It was season seven, episode 16, which aired on February 18th, 1996. And there was apparently a dare to coin some interesting words. And so writer Dan Greaney coined embiggen and David X. Cohen coined cromulent, which we do not yet define.

Peter Sokolowski: They were coined to be used in the show.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh.

Emily Brewster: The reason that we entered embiggen in our dictionaries is that embiggen has gone on to have kind of unremarkable use. You will see on a website, it'll say click here to embiggen the image.

Peter Sokolowski: There is a kind of specificity to that word. In other words, it's sort of online or at least visually on a screen. We don't think of it as being in a kitchen or on a chalkboard or something, but on a screen.

Emily Brewster: We don't say that your bread dough is going to embiggen.

Peter Sokolowski: That's what I mean. In other words, it's something kind of less than literal, less than the baking literal, but apparent to the eye, maybe always digital. There's something about that word that has a specificity. English does love to add these terms.

Emily Brewster: The actual Simpsons episode does not have anything digital connected to it. It is a Springfield founder, Jedediah Springfield is quoted saying, "a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Somebody responds, "embiggens, I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield." And the reply is, "I don't know why, it's a perfectly cromulent word."

Ammon Shea: What I think is so lovely about that is that a lot of times people think it's very easy. You just invent a word and that's how it gets into the dictionary. And it's so hard to invent a word and have it get enough currency that it can get in. If it were easy, everybody would do it. And its remarkable. And people do invent words all the time of course. But people inventing a word for the purpose of making a new term that people are going to then adopt is incredibly unlikely. About 15 years ago, I was doing a radio program in the BBC with some book tour. And I was paired with a group of comedians in Scotland who had decided they all had a bet. What they were going to do was they were going to try to get a word into an Oxford dictionary. And what they all did was they all wrote for newspapers and they would send in letters and they would just, each one had their own word and they would try to get it into print. And then they would send in citations of print use and stuff like this. They had been doing this five years and they were really working at this. And I remember they were saying to me, something like, please don't tell anybody at Oxford we're doing this. I did, of course it's too good to pass up. The people at Oxford said they don't care. If it gains enough use, it's totally immaterial to them what the intentions of the people who originally coined it were. That's not part of our consideration. It's just, does the word have enough currency in actual natural use? Does it have a specific use by a specific group of people or enough people that we can enter in the dictionary? I applaud anybody that can actually get around to doing this. I think it's remarkable.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. We're completely agnostic. On that point. You just said a scene from the Simpsons that had two words that I know, even though I haven't seen that show and the fact is that's a huge success. It's unbelievable that they got two words into the language from one scene.

Emily Brewster: We're perfectly happy to have the language embiggened or enlarged.

Peter Sokolowski: Getting back to at large, just to kind of finish that idea. This idea of freedom is behind these titles. This is sort of where I was going with this editor at large, critic at large, writer at large, they refer to someone without a narrow or specific subject or assignment for their work. And this is also the origin of course, of the use of at large, for political offices that don't represent a single or specific voting district.

And that's exactly what counselor at large is, or selectman at large in New England. Member at large of a committee or something. And so this use is common enough that it's lexicalized. You can look up at large in the dictionary because it's used sometimes as an adjective. An at large counselor is what we give in the dictionary, at large city counselor. So at large is used so frequently post-positively that now we can use it adjectivally and put it in front as well. The other use that was from the song that you quoted society at large, community at large, the world at large, in this case at large means "as a whole," it means comprehensive or in a broadest sense, at large. So those are the two, probably most common meanings of at large, that we would encounter today.

Emily Brewster: Such a mickle language we have. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at Word Matters at m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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