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Famers and physical laborers needed three square meals a day: all full, well-balanced and hearty. They’d eat  breakfast before sunup, work until lunch, load up on calories again and work until sundown, when they ate a big dinner and went to bed. One origin story says the term square meal originated with sailors aboard ship who had their meals served to them on square trays with rims around the edges to keep their square plates from sliding off as sailing ships pitched and rolled with the waves. Those who study such things say this is likely a backronym, the word that describes a plausible story that has been made up to fit the situation. The easy way to recognize a backronym is the lack of evidence that supports the claim.

We all know a square is a figure with four equal sides and four right angles

Craftsmen know a square to be a tool for measuring right angles. Mathematicians know a square is the product of any number multiplied by itself. The six sides of a die, when all the angles are 90˚, are all squares of equal size.

Square deal

President Teddy Roosevelt used the term square deal as his campaign slogan in the 1904 presidential election. Note the use of the carpenter’s square on the campaign button. Roosevelt identified the three goals of his Square Deal program as:

  • Conservation of natural resources,
  • Control of corporations and
  • Consumer protection.

Today a square deal is an honest transaction on both sides that takes in account the interests of all concerned.

Square one is where it all starts 

When you’ve made a mess of things, that’s where you have to go back to and start again. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

  • To be fair and square with someone is to be honest, right and proper. 
  • To square things means to make them right. 
  • To square things away means to put them in their proper places.
  • To square up is to pay a debt.

Squares are people who are conventional and conservative, with old-fashioned views. The term as used by hipsters was a putdown of the uncool and unhip. You may remember Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction admonishing Vince Vega to not be a square. You might even remember Maynard G. Krebs, the bohemian character from TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, who called all non-beatniks “squares.” Bob Denver was better known for the show Gilligan’s Island, where he pretty much reprised the character. Only a few know the Krebs character was the inspiration for Scooby-Doo’s Shaggy Rogers.

Nerds were squares and in the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds, the notion was that it was hip to be square. Two years later, Hip to Be Square was a big hit for Huey Lewis and the News. By definition, only a minority can be truly hip, of course.

Square peg in a round hole

The square pegs are those who are unusually individualistic and so do not fit comfortably into standard roles, positions, situations or groups. Unless, of course, you beat them over the head until they do.


The term beat was slang for people who were down on their luck. After World War Two, the beat movement began with a group of writers who disliked the square, stodgy, bland culture of the Eisenhower era. The Beat Generation was captured in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Soon after, beat became beatnik and entered the broader vocabulary, where it stayed until it was replaced by a new term, “hippie,” used by journalists to describe members of a countercultural movement that rejected much of mainstream American life, particularly the Vietnam War. Those were the earliest days of tie-dyed shirts, dashikis, long hair, beards, psychedelic music, protest movements, the invention of the birth control pill, the sexual revolution and the widespread use of cannabis.

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