Q&A: Why are criminals “at large”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, by and large…

Q: Hey AWC, let’s say there is a killer on the loose.

A: What? Quick – lock the doors!

Q: No, it’s a hypothetical killer.

A: Is that like the Zodiac Killer? Why do they always have to give them such cryptic names? Hurry up, lock all the doors!

Q: Wow, why do we have so many doors in here? But anyway, NO – the killer isn’t real.

A: Oh. Why didn’t you say so?

Q: Hmmm. What I’m trying to ask is when a killer IS on the loose, why do police and the media say that they are “at large”? Even the skinny offenders are described “at large” – what’s going on?

A: Haha, that’s a good question!

Q: Thanks. 

A: Of course, the description isn’t confined to just serial killers. Anyone who is not in police custody – either because they escaped or haven’t yet been caught – is considered “at large”.

Q: Yeah, it’s just a strange idiom.

A: And for that, you can blame the French.

Q: Sacré bleu! I should’ve known! 

A: The phrase dates all the way back to the late 14th century, with “at large” meaning “at (one's) liberty, free from imprisonment or confinement free to move openly”. This was the original – and still most common – meaning of the phrase, and it essentially comes from the French for “uncaptured”.

Q: Uncaptured?

A: Yes – “au large” translates as “at liberty, or free of restraint”. 

Q: Well, that certainly makes more sense.

A: However, this was just the beginning – with the phrase expanding in meaning over the centuries. By the 1600s, “at large” had, well, gained a larger following. You could now talk about a subject “at large” or explore the country “at large” – still with the original meaning of freely, or without restraint.

Q: So what you’re telling me is that the phrase “at large” was at large?

A: It was a runaway freight train of meaning, yes.

Q: Did they have freight trains in the 1600s?

A: Good point. A runaway stagecoach. Anyway, more recently, “at large” has gained a specific meaning in American politics – relating to someone elected to govern a whole area rather than just a smaller segment of the population (e.g. “Montana at large” or an “at-large official”). 

Q: It could get very confusing for news reports if that politician decided to become a serial killer…

A: Good point. Meanwhile, the term has latched onto other roles – including an “editor-at-large”, who is not confined to writing about any one particular area. Another is an “ambassador-at-large” – typically used for a diplomat of the highest rank, representing their country on the global stage.

Q: Oh, so they do Shakespeare plays?

A: No. You’re thinking of ‘The Globe’ stage and theatre in London. Very different.

Q: Intrigue, back-stabbing, power struggles, war, tragedy…

A: Okay, not that different.

Q: So, to recap – “at large” started out being just for criminals who were running free, but later came to apply to a whole bunch of other things done without restraint.

A: Yeah. It can also simply mean “as a whole” – like “society at large”. But the most common meaning remains that original one – hearing about a fugitive “at large”. Like Harrison Ford in that movie.

Q: Indiana Jones?

A: No, not that one.

Q: Sabrina?

A: No! We were of course talking about The Fugitive – just one of many “innocent person on the run” movies that include classics like The Bourne Identity or The 39 Steps.

Q: Ohhh, I always thought The 39 Steps was about someone who had a lazy day on the couch. My fitbit has been known to stay in double digits on those occasions, that’s for sure…

A: We seem to have stumbled off topic.

Q: We’re “at large” in this conversation, if you will!

A: Very good. 

Q: So, do you think this chat about “at large” will appeal to a “wider” audience? Hahaahaha.

A: Groan. You can leave now. 

Q: Nope, can’t. The door’s locked…


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