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Square meal

Q From Hendear: What's the origin of square meal?

A A pithy question, which is going to need a rather longer answer.

This common term for a satisfying and filling repast (as in “three square meals a day”) leads many amateur etymologisers towards origins based on a literal reading of the words:

Wonderful stuff. Rubbish, of course, but entertaining rubbish.

It’s an interesting comment on the imagination of such storytellers that they haven’t created similar stories about square deal or fair and square. Yet these also employ square for something that is fair, honest, honourable or straightforward. Older phrases of similar type include the square thing and square play. Several of them date to the seventeenth century and even possibly earlier. This figurative sense comes from the idea that something made with exact right angles has been properly constructed (right in right angle is another reference to the same idea). Some of these may derive from Masonic ritual.

We know that square meal was originally American. Early examples seem to have come out of miners’ slang from the western side of the country. Mark Twain, in The Innocents Abroad, refers to it as a Californian expression and that squares, so to speak, with the oldest example I know of, which appeared in the Mountain Democrat of Placerville, California (a gold-mining town) of 8 November 1856: “We have secured the services of an excellent cook, and can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and a ‘square meal,’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune.’” A slightly later one appeared in 1862 in the Morning Oregonian of Portland, Oregon, about a hotel that had opened in the town: “If you want a good square meal and a clean bed to sleep in, give Mr Lee a call.”

I found a further reference in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of 1865, about the mining town of Virginia City in Nevada, created to serve the famous Comstock lode. “Says the proprietor of a small shanty, in letters that send a thrill of astonishment through your brain: ‘LOOK HERE! For fifty cents you CAN GET A GOOD SQUARE MEAL at the HOWLING WILDERNESS SALOON!’”

The writer felt the need to explain this strange phrase: “A square meal is not, as may be supposed, a meal placed upon the table in the form of a solid cubic block, but a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance.”

Just so. Modern storytellers please copy.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Apr. 2006
Last updated: 3 Jun. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-squ3.htm
Last modified: 3 June 2006.