Writ Large

I’m a [reluctant] descriptivist — if you really want to say ‘irregardless’ you may — but I’m also a zealous advocate of knowing as much as one can about the ways words work together. Often that has little or nothing to do with ‘rules’ or ‘grammar’, but simply the effect wrought by striking combinations of sense, sound, context, reference, and so on.

With that in mind: while one element of the sense of the phrase ‘writ large’ has to do with ‘on a grander scale’ or ‘to a greater degree’, surely when Milton wrote ‘New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large’ (as the concluding line of ‘On The New Forcers Of Conscience Under The Long Parliament’), the rationale for the line is less ‘you’re even worse’ (though he does accuse them of so being) than ‘it’s a longer word for the same thing.’

(a) OED gives Milton as the originator of the phrase ‘writ large’, though I’ve seen it attributed to one person a few years earlier than Milton (don’t have time to check); hence, it seems unlikely that it had currency as an idiom for ‘to a greater extent’ or ‘worse’ antecedent to Milton’s use of it to that effect.

OED s.v. ‘writ large’ ‘After Milton’s use in quot. 1673, where the sense is ‘written *at length* or more fully’.’ [my emphasis]

(b) If the primary sense is ‘worse’ or ‘even more so’, then the relative length of the words is adventitious. But if Milton (who, I’m given to understand, has a reputation as a pretty clever guy in some literary circles) used ‘writ large’ in the semi-literal sense to convey ‘same thing with more letters’, then the ‘worse’ sense — amply indicated by the rest of the poem — follows on from the wry observation that the only thing the Puritans had changed was the spelling, and intensifies the point.

I noticed when I posted this that I’d already used this header once, so I went to look up the prior use. Almost exactly fifteen years ago, when I was in Durham NC without any evident prospect of a job when my year teaching at Duke Divinity ran out, I posted this. Plus ça change…

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