return to square 1 (maybe 1923)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Nov 5 07:33:17 UTC 2009

On Wed, Nov 4, 2009 at 6:25 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: return to square 1 (maybe 1923)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> At 6:16 PM -0500 11/4/09, Garson O'Toole wrote:
>>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?
> That suggestion makes sense (which isn't to say
> it's any more than a nice etymythology), but I
> don't understand what football commentary would
> have to do with "(back to) square one".  Can you
> elucidate?

Thanks for your response. Sorry, my message was not clear. The text
that I included above about square one, football, and Snakes and
Ladders was excerpted from the OED website. The text appears on the
following webpage under the entry for "square one".

The connection between football commentary on the BBC's radio service
and the phrase "back to square one" is discussed on the following
webpage at the BBC's website:

A more general discussion of the phrase "back to square one" that
presents three suggestions for its origin appears on this webpage. The
page also criticizes the football commentary origin theory:

The earliest printed evidence for the phrase "back to square one" is a
citation dated 1952 according to the following OED entry:

I am attempting to contribute to this dialogue by presenting a
citation dated 1923. The precise wording used in 1923 is "return to
square 1". I think that the origin of the phrase "return to square 1"
may illuminate the origin of the phrase "back to square one". (Note
the BBC radio commentary on football began in 1927.)

The following is the text of the 1923 citation and more information about it:

>>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

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