Back To Square One


The meaning of the phrase “back to square one” is to return to the beginning of something, usually as a result of failure.

Example: We had a hard time deciding where to go for our vacation. After discussing things further, we finally decided on the island of Maui. However, we later realized that it would be too expensive for us to travel there, so now we’re back at square one.

Synonyms: back to the drawing board

Going back to square one, board game Snakes and Ladders.
This is the children’s game Snakes and Ladders. Does the phrase come from this board game?

The Origin of ‘Back To Square One’

There are a couple theories about the origin of the phrase “back to square one,” so let’s go over them:

#1: It’s thought that this phrase may come from the board game Snakes and Ladders. This game is played on a board that looks like a grid (as seen in the picture above). Players start the game on square one and their goal is to reach the end. Progress is made by rolling dice.

There are some spaces on the board with pictures of snakes on them. If a player lands on one of these squares, they are sent backwards a certain distance. Sometimes, landing on a snake will send a player all the way to the beginning, back to square one (hence the phrase).

Of note, there are various board layouts for this game with snakes in different locations. So not all boards have snakes on them that lead back to the starting square.

This is one of the theories for how the saying originated. Interestingly, one of the earliest appearances of this expression in print is from a 1952 edition of the Economic Journal. It’s used in connection with the board game:

“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.”

Theory #2

If the phrase ‘back to square one’ did not come from the game Snakes and Ladders, then here’s another theory about its origin:

#2: This expression may have come from a children’s game known as hopscotch. Hopscotch is played with multiple people and the course takes place on numbered squares that are written onto the ground. Players throw a marker into one of the squares and then they try to hop through the course while avoiding the square with the marker in it.

If a player makes a mistake, their turn ends. These mistakes include stepping on a line or losing balance and falling. Depending on the rules, once it’s their turn again they can do one of two things. They can either resume from the square they left off at, or they have to return to the beginning, back to square one (hence the expression).

Example Sentences Containing ‘Back To Square One’:

  • After somebody carelessly knocked down Jake’s sand castle, it was back to square one if he wanted to build it again.
  • I started an exercise routine and stayed with it for two months. However, when I got sick my routine fell apart. It took me weeks to recover and now I feel like my fitness level is back at square one.

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