It’s a great language, isn’t it?
My students were writing in response to a group of articles on fast food and the American obesity epidemic. This essay focused on First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative; clearly the author felt Obama had a good idea.
“At large” means, as we (including the writer) know, “without restraint or confinement, as an escaped convict.” It can also mean “at length,” “in a general way,” and “as a whole”; but clearly my student is using the phrase in its first sense.
The verb “to keep” isn’t generally used with this phrase, though: “to keep” or “to hold” seems more comfortable with “at bay,” or “unable to retreat, thus forced to face danger.” But he doesn’t mean “at bay.”
He means “at large,” sort of—at least, he means “unrestrained.” But to be at large, obesity must be some kind of person: the phrase brings to the mind’s eye an image of a corpulent fellow in striped pajamas and a burglar’s mask, roaming through the back streets, trotting along the highway, lurking in the park. And on the police radios, the APB: “Escaped Obesity at large. Approach with caution. May be armed.”
And of course the real tickle of this sentence is the appropriateness of “at large” to “obesity.” The problems (sedentary lifestyle, high-calorie and high-fat foods, stress) are causing obesity in the general population (at large!), perhaps causing rampant obesity (unrestrained, wild, fast-moving and wide-ranging—although the image of the corpulent fellow rearing up on his hind legs or galloping along is going to infect that phrase too). In causing obesity, the problems are making us large. In other words, the problems are evidently keeping largeness at large.
So I wonder if this sentence is an example of a phrase that crept in by association. “Keeping obesity…um, uh…keeping obesity…AHA! at large! Just the phrase!” says the hapless student, and the words jump onto the screen and are printed on the page without a moment of reflection, without a laughing fit, without a reread to encourage the student to ask whether he should make his solemn sentence into a punny joke.
I have to be grateful. It had been a long evening of paper-grading, and I needed the laugh.