Back to square one

  • Back to square one is an idiom that seems to have come into use in the mid-twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beat around the bush, ballpark figure, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, Achilles heel, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, a dime a dozen, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the expression back to square one, its etymology, and some examples of its use in sentences.


    Going back to square one means to begin again, to start over, to go back to the beginning. When someone must go back to square one, he has lost any progress he has made and has to rethink his position or strategy. Another idiom that means virtually the same thing is go back to the drawing board. Synonyms of the phrase back to square one that may be found in a thesaurus are restart, refresh, reboot. The exact origin of the idiom back to square one is unknown, but most probably has its roots in a game. Board games became popular in the twentieth century, and many attribute the origin of the expression back to square one to the game Snakes and Ladders, known in the United States as Chutes and Ladders. Others believe the phrase originated in the game of hopscotch. In any case, it seems reasonable to assume that the idiom originated in some sort of game play. Related phrases are go back to square one, goes back to square one, going back to square one, went back to square one.



    Now, it’s back to square one for what to do with the aging courthouse. (The Corpus Christi Caller Times)

    “If we find it to be different than what the theory predicts, then we go back to square one and we say, ‘Clearly, something is not exactly right.’” (Reuters)

    There’s even a chance that, in the end, your insurer will decide not to cover the treatment, bringing you back to square one. (The Courier Journal)

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