Back to Square One
Back to Square One : Phrases
Back to the beginning, to start again.
The most widely reported suggestions for the origin of this phrase are BBC sports commentaries, board games like snakes and ladders and playground games like hopscotch.
In order that listeners could follow the progress of the game in radio commentaries the pitch was divided into eight notional squares. Commentators described the play by saying which square the ball was in. The Radio Times, which was and is the BBC's listings guide, refers to the practice in an issue from January 1927.
These commentaries certainly happened and prints of the pitch diagrams still exist. Recordings of early commentaries also exist, including the very first broadcast sports commentary (of a rugby match). 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 issue of The Radio Times which celebrated 80 years of BBC football commentary. In this 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, is it nothing but conjecture. What is a fact is that the BBC broadcast a popular etymology series Balderdash and Piffle in collaboration with the OED 2006. This questioned the claim that the BBC commentaries were the source and the claim that the phrase was in circulation in the 1930s.
It's not the first time that BBC commentators have talked balderdash and piffle and I doubt it will be the last. Private Eye made something of a cottage industry out of printing examples of such in their Colemanballs columns and books.
Many people 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."
It isn't a feature of snakes and ladders that players are sent back to square one. Few examples of boards that have a snake in the first square exist. 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 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.
All of the above are 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 that 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. There are many believable hearsay examples from at least thirty years earlier. Perhaps a printed source from before 1952 will yield the truth?
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