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“At large” is an idiom in the English language that has two fundamental meanings. The most common interpretation of the phrase in everyday speaking is a reference to someone who should be in confinement, usually in a prison, but has somehow escaped and is “at large,” meaning he or she could be anywhere. In this context, it could also refer to captives who were prisoners of war, political prisoners, or others who have escaped their captors.
In a more benign sense, it can refer to employees who are missing from their position on the job and are “at large,” somewhere else on the premises. The other frequent use for the phrase is as a general connecting term, often in political arenas. It can indicate an entire body of individuals, such as the “country at large” or an “ambassador at large.”
English sayings such as “at large” often have a tendency to convey positive or negative feelings. Even though the meaning of idioms is technically neutral, in this case, escaped captives who are “at large” are assumed to be dangerous individuals, such as an escaped murderer. In the same context, it can also refer to a dangerous animal that has escaped capture, such as a lion or tiger being “at large” from its pen at the zoo. When a public posting of a person or animal is listed as being “at large,” people immediately assume that the former condition of restraint was for a very good reason. Outlaws on the United States western frontier during the settlement period, were frequently referred to as being “at large,” with the infamous train robber Jesse James escaping authorities for 16 years as the premier example of this.
Idiomatic expressions can have many interpretations, and a more contemporary one for this idiom also exists. The phrase can simply mean an extensive body of work, such as a teacher who decides to lecture on “a subject at large.” The saying can also be used to represent a broad view of a field of concern, such as in analyzing the state of the economy “at large.”
Since the meaning of idioms changes depending on the context in which they are used, it is often important not to take them at face value without first thinking about what was said when they were expressed. The problem with translating idioms from one language to another and retaining their original meaning is a complex one. This is because each language has a different way of understanding how the world around it functions. Varying meanings for common idioms are also one of the main reasons that advanced computer systems have a difficult time making sense out of human speech. For computers, understanding the meaning of idioms may remain a problem "at large" to them for some time to come.