On a sailing vessel, a ship was “taken aback” when a sudden shift in the wind came from the front instead of blowing from behind it, forcing it backward. And a ship that sailed up behind another ship and intercepted its wind prevented the ship’s forward progress by “taking the wind out of its sails.” Over time, people began to incorporate sailing terms like these into everyday use.
For example, a 19th-century sailor who was described as “knowing the ropes” had mastered or understood how to work the many ropes and knots that rigged a sailing vessel. Today, the phrase means that someone is knowledgeable about the details of a subject. A fathom is a nautical unit of length equal to about six feet deep. Today, a person who “fathoms” something has a deep understanding for it. Aboard a ship, a pipe often was played at night to signal that it was time for the sailors to extinguish all lights and to go to sleep. Today, “Pipe down!” is another way to say “Be quiet!”
On a ship with sails, “by” meant sailing into the wind, while “large” meant sailing with a favorable wind—one that filled the ship’s large sails. So “by and large” described a ship that was able to sail both with and