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Back to square one

Q From Allan Todd: Do you have any idea about the origin of the phrase back to square one?

A By saying that we are back to square one or back in square one we mean that some problem or error has lost us all the ground we have gained in some enterprise, so that we are now back at the beginning and must start again. It appeared, for example, in a Reuters report dated 13 May 2008 in a quote from the Airbus chief executive: “We have to make some progress but we are not back to square one.”

As you noted in your e-mail to me, there’s a persistent story that it’s linked to the early days of broadcasting in Britain. The first radio commentary on a football match was broadcast by the BBC on 22nd January 1927. To help listeners visualise the pitch [playing field] and where the players and ball were, the producer, Lance Sieveking, worked out a scheme of dividing the pitch into eight numbered squares and had a diagram published in the BBC’s listings guide, Radio Times. The commentator could then say the ball was currently in square five, or square three, or whatever. Square one was to one side of one of the goals.

Ingenious though this suggestion is, it hardly seems plausible, not least because it’s hard to equate being at square one on the pitch with having made no progress (though the teams change ends at half time, commentators didn’t invert the diagram). The numbering scheme was abandoned in the middle 1930s, and the twenty-year gap between then and the first appearance of the expression in print is further indication that it isn’t the source.

Another origin, much more plausible, is suggested by the first example we currently know about, which Fred Shapiro of Yale Law School found in an issue of the Economic Journal for 1952: “He has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders.” This game is known as chutes and ladders in the USA. Although few snakes and ladders boards actually have a snake that returns the unlucky player to the first square on the board, perhaps we shouldn’t demand total accuracy when investigating the origin of figurative usages.

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Page created 14 Jun 2008