[Ads-l] Early variant of "Back to Square One"

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Sat Aug 5 19:32:50 UTC 2017

The origin of "back to square one" is apparently still unknown.  Popular explanations include British radio football commentary in the 1920s or the board game "snakes and ladders."

In 2005, Fred Shapiro offered what was then the earliest known example, which supported the board game-theory:


"The writer ... has the problem of maintaining the interest of a reader who is being always sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders."        Economic Journal, volume 62, page 411 (1952).

In 2016, Peter Morris offered an earlier idiomatic use from 1946 and an earlier literal use, in the context of board-game play, which apparently supports the board game theory:


Saigon Singer Van Wick Mason 1946  http://tinyurl.com/jbgp9do "And now, mon Commandant," she said brightly, "I'm over my crise denerfs. You may consider me right back in Square One."

I've found an earlier use (1940) of what appears to be a variant of the familiar phrase.  The context does not hint at its origin, one way or the other, but it does seem at least consistent with board games, generally.

It comes from an article about a writer who is unsatisfied with her work and found herself starting over:

"At the end of a fortnight Brenda was back on the first square of her book.  To be sure she had written steadily every day but the results had frankly disgusted her."

The Paris News (Paris, Texas), May 19, 1940, page 6 (newspapers.com)<https://www.newspapers.com/clip/12881589/the_paris_news/>.

In 2009, Garson O'Toole provided several links to sites that discuss the etymology<http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2009-November/094025.html>.

He also gave a link to a google.books snippet of a 1923 psychology text that used the words, "back to square 1."  While it looks promising in the snippet view, the full text is available on HathiTrust, and it looks like a literal description of a hand-eye coordination test used by researchers.  A subject touches a series of squares with numbers in them, and at times during the test returns to touch "square 1".  The usage here does not appear to be the familiar idiomatic use.

Franz Shepherd Ivory, Nervous and Mental Re-Education, 1923<https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015001991705;view=1up;seq=96>.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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