return to square 1 (maybe 1923)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sun Nov 8 11:46:36 UTC 2009

 Stephen Goranson said
> Apparently it's in the 1920 edition, page 112 at internetarchicve:

Great! Thanks, Stephen, for finding the 1920 edition at the Internet
Archive. The two examples using "square 1" from the 1920s are
non-metaphorical, i.e., for hopscotch and a physical movement test.
The first metaphorical use of "back in square one" that I could find
is in a novel from 1946:

  "And now, mon Commandant," she said brightly, "I'm over my crise de
nerfs. You may consider me back in Square One."
  "'Square One' in French sounds silly. Let's talk English." Though
speaking lightly, he had definite reasons for making the suggestion.
Citation: Saigon Singer by Francis van Wyck Mason, page 116, Doubleday, 1946.

This is from a snippet view, but the data is probably ok because there
are two separate scans of the work yielding the same result. Also, the
Worldcat publication date is 1946 and a Wikipedia bibliography for the
author lists the work with the same date.

The author is American and the character using the phrase "back in
Square One" is supposed to be a French speaker I think. Snakes and
Ladders was a UK game, and it is unclear if this American author was
ever exposed to it, though he may have known of Chutes and Ladders.

The citation Fred Shapiro found and announced on ADS-L in 2005 is
still one of the most intriguing:

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.
1952 Econ. Jrnl. 62 411

As a final exercise in etymythology, I looked more closely at one
community of speakers by searching the digitized Hansard transcripts
of parliamentary debates in the UK. There is some further evidence
that the speakers were thinking of the game Snakes and Ladders when
saying "back to square one".

The first four instances in the Hansard database that I could find of
the metaphorical use of "back to square one (1)" to mean the
re-initiation of a task were in 1953, 1956, 1958 and 1959.
Unfortunately, no particular game or exercise is specified by the

They should really move back to "Square One" and think the whole thing
out again from first principles to see what conclusion they reach.
25 February 1953 - Mr. R. Brooman-White (Rutherglen)

That being so, I am pleading with my hon. Friend to find some way in
which this case can be reopened and we can go back to "square one."
24 July 1956 - Mr. E. H. C. Leather  (Somerset, North)

If we accede to the request of the noble Lord to reject this Bill, we
go back to "Square 1", and nothing will be done for years and years.
17 June 1958 - Lord Mancroft

The failure of the integration proposal brought us back, to use a
colloquialism, to square one.
16 February 1959 - Mr. Julian Amery

In the 1940s and 50s I found some examples of hopscotch used in a
simile or metaphor, but none corresponded to the re-initiation of a
task. In the 1940s I found several instances of Snakes and Ladders
used as part of a simile. Two instances clearly refer to restarting a
task, although the phrase "back to square one" is not used.

Incidentally, any objection by any Ministry at any stage usually means
that the project—in the manner of 'snakes and ladders'—goes back two
or three stages and starts afresh.
05 December 1945 - Mr. Oliver Lyttelton  (Aldershot)

This, of course, is not like steeplechasing. It is like a game of
snakes and ladders. One has to go way back and start all over again.
01 June 1949 - Mr. Eccles

Lastly, in 1959 a speaker discusses the numerical labeling system that
is used for squares in the game.  The speaker assumes that her
listeners are familiar with this labeling.

I should like to see the roads and kerbs painted so that every person
knows what would happen in every square inch of the road. It is like
playing snakes and ladders — on square 1 a person knows he can park,
on square 2 he knows he can load, and on square 3 he knows that he
must keep moving.
10 December 1959 - Mr. Marples

Today, I suspect many speakers and listeners have an imprecise generic
game in mind when they utter or hear the phrase. When I asked several
American individuals about the phrase each one understood its meaning
and thought that it corresponded to an event in a game. But no one was
certain which game. A variety of games were guessed, including
implausible games like chess and checkers. Hopscotch was mentioned
with the greatest certitude.

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society -

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