Back to Square One: Soccer & Children’s Games

Happy Monday, everyone. I hope you all had a good weekend & that you’ve settled well into your mondays. Let’s kick off he week with a new Bill’s Bologna post.

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally have a post about an idiom for you all. So, here it is:

“Back to square one” is a common phrase, which means starting over. Different groups of etymologists argue over how it actually started, but the general consensus is that it came from one of three places. The three explanations deal with popular sports & games, which are still played today.

Here they are:

This one’s very simple. In hopscotch, you draw numbered squares on the ground. You throw a stone & hop from square to square in numerical order. The square on which the stone landed is skipped. When you’ve reached the end, you go backwards, to square one.


Hopscotch as illustrated by Isiah Thomas in his 1767 book, A Pretty Little Pocket Book
(Image in Public Domain)

Chutes & Ladders:
I would be really surprised if anyone reading this hasn’t played Chutes & Ladders because it’s one of the most common children’s board games of all. It’s also one of the oldest.
In 1943, Milton Bradley changed the snakes to chutes, or slides, & marketed it to American children. What most people don’t know is that the game was played as far back as the Sixteenth Century. It was Indian & was called Moksha Patam.


Your journey towards your destiny in the caste system- The original version of Snakes (Chutes) & Ladders, from India
(Image in Public Domain)

The game was played on a numbered grid which vared from 8×8 to 12×12. Across the board, there were ladders & snakes connecting different squares. If you landed on the bottom of a ladder, you could bypass some squares, but if you landed on the head of a snake, you had to backtrack to the square where the snake’s tale was. Unlike most games at the time, which emphasized strategy, this one was meant to symbolize destiny. All you had to do was roll the dice & move your piece. Whether or not you landed on a ladder or snake square was where your pawn (symbolic for your soul) was desined to land. Here’s where the phrase comes in. If you landed on a snake head leading back to the first square, you had to start over because you were sent back to square one. Makes sense, right?

Another group of etymologists believe that it dates back to the BBC broadcasts of soccer.
Back in the 1930s, radio was huge. There weren’t any TVs yet, so this is how sports fans were able to experience games. Radio announcers from the British Broadcasting Corporation would divide the soccer field up a 2 x 4 grid. They’d number the squares, with 1 & 2 on one side, & 7 & 8 on the other. I was easier for someone at home to picture where the ball was if the announcer had a clear area to describe.
BBC fans adamantly argue that this is the true origin, but as the English site, The Phrase Finder, points out, there are a few problems with this one, the biggest one being the fact that just because a ball is kicked into the first square, doesn’t mean that the game started over. The site also mentions that the squares on the field are much more rectangular than square, but I think that may be nit-picking a bit.

Soccer Squares as described by BBC sports announcers

Soccer Squares as described by BBC sports announcers

Any of these seem plausible to me, but then there’s this quotation. It’s from 1952, & it pops up everywhere, as one of the first times the phrase is used in this context.

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.

The Phrase Finder claims that it is, in fact, the first time this is documented on paper & that after the 1930s, announcers stopped calling games like this. Therefore, it’s not likely that this is a true story. Again, it’s speculation.

I tend to lean towards the Chutes & Ladders origin, but again, they’re all considered plausible. Which one do you think?

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Have a great rest of the week & I’ll see you at my next post.

Now you know; you’re welcome.


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