Back to square one
Back to the beginning, to start again.
'Back to square one' is a classic of folk etymology. Although the origin is uncertain, no uncertainty lurks in the minds of those who are sure they know how, where and when it was derived. It ranks up there with 'the whole nine yards' and 'posh' as an expression that people 'know' the origin of, when in fact they don't.
There are three widely reported suggestions as to the phrase's origin: BBC sports commentaries, board games like Snakes and Ladders and playground games like hopscotch. Let's examine them in turn:
Ask a group of people about the origin of 'back to square one' and it won't be long before you are told that it originated with BBC football commentaries.
Early BBC radio commentaries did help listeners follow the progress of football and rugby games by notionally dividing the pitch into eight rectangles. Commentators described the play by saying which 'square' the ball was in. The Radio Times, the BBC's listings guide, referred to the practice in an issue from January 1927.
Commentaries that used a numbering system certainly happened and prints of the pitch diagrams still exist. Recordings of early commentaries also exist, including the very first broadcast sports commentary of any kind - a rugby match, as it happens. That commentary, and many others that followed, referred listeners to the printed maps and a second commentator called out the numbers as the ball moved from square to square. However, at no point in any existing commentary do they use the phrase 'back to square one'.
Despite this, the BBC issued a piece in a January 2007 edition of The Radio Times celebrating 80 years of BBC football commentary in which the football commentator John Murray stated with confidence that "Radio Times' grids gave us the phrase 'back to square one'" and that "the grid system was dropped in the 1930s (not before the phrase 'back to square one' had entered everyday vocabulary)". This confidence is despite the fact that, although it could be true, it is nothing but conjecture.
What counts against the radio commentaries being the source is:
- The 'squares' are in fact rectangles.
- Square One isn't in any sense the beginning in a football game. All of the other seven squares - sorry, rectangles - have just as good a claim to be starting points.
- Perhaps the most damning evidence is that the phrase isn't known in print before 1952. That's many years after the BBC abandoned the use of visual aids for radio sports commentaries.
Other sources report that the phrase refers to Snakes and Ladders or similar board games. The earliest citation of the phrase in print is currently 1952, from the Economic Journal:
"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."
Despite that comment, it isn't a feature of Snakes and Ladders that players are sent back to square one. Of the many examples of such boards that exist, only a few have a snake in the first square. For the phrase to have come from that source people must have had occasion to use it, and that appears not to be the case with Snakes and Ladders.
This playground game is played on a grid of numbered squares. The precise rules of the game vary from place to place but it usually involves players hopping from square to square, missing out the square containing their thrown stone. They go from one to (usually) eight or ten and then back to square one.
The game's name derives from 'scotch', which was used from the 17th century to denote a line scored on the ground and, of course, hopping. It was referred to in the 1677 edition of Robert Winstanley's satirical almanac Poor Robin:
"The time when School-boys should play at Scotch-hoppers."
Each of the above three explanations is plausible enough to gain supporters. As is usual with phrases of uncertain origin, most people are happy to believe the first explanation they hear. There's no real evidence to put the origin beyond reasonable doubt, and so it remains uncertain.
Whatever the source, 1952 is surprisingly late as the earliest printing for a phrase that was certainly in the spoken language much earlier than that and there are many hearsay examples from at least thirty years earlier. Perhaps a printed source from before 1952 will yield the truth?
See also: back to the drawing board.