Back To Square One

What’s the meaning of “back to square one”?

To start over after a setback or failure. This phrase means to return to the starting point, often because of unexpected challenges, and it implies previous efforts were wasted. Here are 3 important parts to consider about the meaning of back to square one:

  • Resetting to the starting point: “Back to square one” indicates starting anew, typically due to things not going as planned.
  • Lack of progress or wasted effort: The phrase suggests that previous attempts were unproductive or wasted because one is forced to return to the beginning.
  • Unexpected challenges: The phrase implies that unexpected obstacles arose, which resulted in disrupted progress and a setback.

Example: The negotiations between the two companies broke down, so now they’re back to square one in their efforts to reach an agreement.

Similar: The phrase “back to square one” is similar to “back to the drawing board” because both idioms convey the idea of returning to the beginning due to complications, failures, or unexpected obstacles.

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

Synonyms For “Back to Square One”

What are some other options to use in place of this phrase? Let’s consider several synonyms for back to square one that you can use when things don’t go as planned:

  • Starting from scratch
  • Take two steps forward and one step back
  • Back to the drawing board
  • Starting over
  • Hit the reset button

If you’re planning a home renovation or working towards personal fitness goals, it’s not uncommon for challenges to arise, just like with any plans we make. These challenges may require us to start over and rethink our strategy to ensure success next time. When things don’t go as anticipated, we can use the phrase “back to square one” to make that point. Alternatively, synonyms such as “starting from scratch” or “hit the reset button” accomplish the same thing. All of these expressions are just different ways to describe the need to start anew.

What’s the origin of “Back To Square One”?

It is not clear how this common expression originated, but there are two notable theories about its origin. Let’s go over them:

1. The phrase “back to square one” possibly originated from the board game Snakes and Ladders. This game is played on a grid-like board (as depicted in the picture above). In this game, players start at square one and progress by rolling dice to move across the board towards the ending square. However, certain spaces on the board feature pictures of snakes, which can send players back a set distance. These spaces might even reset a player to the beginning of the board, back to square one (hence the phrase).

Interestingly, one of the earliest appearances of this expression in print is from a 1952 edition of the Economic Journal and 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.”

2. This idiom is believed to have originated from a children’s game called hopscotch, which involves multiple players hopping through a course of numbered squares drawn on the ground. In the game, a player throws a marker into one of the squares and attempts to complete the course without stepping on lines or falling. If a mistake is made, the player’s turn ends. Depending on the rules, they may either resume from where they left off or they have to start again from the beginning, referred to as “back to square one” in the expression.

Examples and Sentences

Here are some examples of how to use this phrase in a sentence:

  • He is back to square one after losing the data he was working on to a computer crash.
  • I feel like my fitness level has regressed back to square one because of having to wait months for my broken foot to heal.

Example: After spending hours carefully constructing a sand castle on the beach, someone accidentally stepped on it and crushed it, leaving John disappointed. He sighed and said, “Well, looks like it’s back to square one for me.”

Here are more examples, but this time we will use synonyms in place of the phrase:

  • The cookies I made had a weak flavor, so I went back to the drawing board to find a better recipe.
  • Her paper airplane flew straight into the ground, she plans to start from scratch with a new design.
  • While they were saving up money for a car, they had to hit the reset button due to medical expenses.

Notice how in all of these examples, the phrase “back to square one” and its synonyms all express the notion of starting over due to problems emerging. This fundamental aspect is central to meaning of the idiom. Now, if you enjoyed learning about this expression, then consider reading about the ones below.