Where Does The Phrase ‘Back To Square One’ Come From?

When a sports franchise is floundering, it is common for them to trade or sell off their best players. Blowing up the team in the short term to acquire valuable pieces for the long term is a popular, but not full proof, plan.

When a team decides to take this action, it is said that they are going back to square one. Until now, no mention of square position had been mentioned. We don’t hear about the Phoenix Suns stalling on square 57 or the New York Yankees taking a stroll past square 142.

We only hear about square one.

Wonder Why Wednesday: Where Does The Phrase ‘Back To Square One’ Come From?

The phrase “back to square one” has been around for sometime, but the exact origin of this saying is uncertain. However, there are three widely reported suggestions as to the phrase’s beginning. Let’s take a look at all three:

BBC Football Broadcasts

Before television, people listed to something called the radio. Picture it as Podcasts’ grandpa that was played by a wooden box the size of a toaster. In the 1920s and 30s, British football and rugby radio announcers would help explain the play-by-play by mentally dividing the field into numbered grids to represent the position of the action. Square one was right in front of the home team’s goal. When there was a goal kick by the home squad, the announcers would describe the play as being back at square one.

Board Games

One of the earliest recorded usages of this phrase comes from a 1952 edition of the Economic Journal, where it reads: “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.

The object of the game of Snakes and Ladders (or Shoots and Ladders) is to progress up a board full or numbered squared until you get to the very top square. Any player who falls on a square with a snake (or shoot) on it is sent backwards, sometimes having to even go back to the beginning, or square one.


For those scotch-hoppers out there, you may be familiar with the popular playground game that is played on a course of numbered squares. The game begins as one player throws a rock or some type of marker on to one of the squares. The player then tries to hop through the grid while avoiding the square containing the marker. The goal is to continue around the course and retrieve the marker on the way back to the beginning square…square one.



Sources: Grammar-Monster, Phrases.org/uk & KnowYourPhrase.com

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