return to square 1 (maybe 1923)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 4 23:16:57 UTC 2009

OED Series One Wordhunt asked about: square one (back to…)

Can you help the OED find out once and for all why we say back to
square one? Some say it's to do with radio football commentary in the
20s and 30s (there are commentators' grids in which one section of the
pitch is labelled '1'). So if this is the case, it's very curious that
the expression isn't documented until 1960. Or does it come from board
games like Snakes and Ladders? Do you have an old game which includes
the instructions to go 'Back To Square One' from earlier?

A citation dated 1952 was found.

I found a citation from 1923 for "return to square 1" that is worth
investigating I think. This is not "back to square one" but perhaps it
is close enough:

After this has been accomplished, he is then to return to square 1 and
to do the series over again and again, and to continue until the
signal to stop has been given.

Title: Nervous and Mental Re-education
Author: Shepherd Ivory Franz
Publisher: The Macmillan Company, 1923
Page Number: 82

The Worldcat data matches the 1923 date for publication. Also,
Shepherd Ivory Franz was an experimental psychologist in the proper
time-frame, so this citation is plausible. However, Google only
displays snippets for this book, and the full context is unclear.
Maybe someone can look for this reference on paper to see if it
illuminates the term "square one"?

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society -

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