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.
Synonyms: back to the drawing board, back to the beginning
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 ending square. 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 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, 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 and it is 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.”
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 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 start, that is, back to square one (hence the expression).
- After somebody carelessly trampled through Jake’s sand castle, it was back to square one for him if he wanted to build it again.
- I started exercising and developed a great routine that lasted two months. Then I got sick and my routine fell apart. After recovery weeks later, I feel like I’m back at square one with my fitness level.