The meaning of the phrase back to square one is to return to the beginning of something, either due to failure or because things did not go as planned.
Example: We had a hard time deciding where to go for our vacation. We talked about potential locations for hours, but our discussion took us nowhere and now we’re back at square one. Maybe we’ll try the island of Maui, since it has beautiful scenery and it also fits within our budget.
Synonyms / Similar Phrases: back to the drawing board, back to the beginning, start from scratch
The Origin of ‘Back To Square One’
There are a couple theories about the origin of this phrase, so let’s go over them:
How ‘Back To Square One” Originated, Theory #1:
This phrase may come from the board game Snakes and Ladders. This game takes place on a board that looks like a grid (as seen in the picture above). Players start the game on square one and they progress by rolling dice. The goal is to reach the ending square.
Some spaces on the board have pictures of snakes on them. If a player lands these squares, they are sent back a set distance. Sometimes, landing on a snake will even send a player all the way to the beginning, back to square one (hence the phrase)!
Of note, the boards of this game have layout variations that change the location of the snakes. So not all board layouts have snakes that lead back to the start, that is, square one.
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.”
How ‘Back To Square One Originated, Theory #2:
This idiom possibly comes from a children’s game known as hopscotch. This game can have multiple players and the course it’s played on consists of numbered squares that are written onto the ground. At the start of their turn, a player throws 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, either by stepping on a line or by falling, then their turn ends. Depending on the rules, once it is their turn again they can do one of two things: They can resume from the square they left off at, or they have to return to the start, that is, back to square one (hence the expression).
- Jake was sent back to square one after someone carelessly trampled into the sand castle he had built.
- I feel like my fitness level is back at square one because I had to wait months for my broken foot to heal.
- The cookies I made had a weak flavor, so I went back to the drawing board; I need to think of a better recipe.
- He created a paper airplane that didn’t fly as well as he had hoped, so he plans to start from scratch with a new design.