Circling back to the meaning of squares

By Curtis Honeycutt

Do you have a favorite shape? Many people prefer the infinite loop of a circle. Others find triangles to be a cute shape. Me? I like squares. There’s just something about four 90-degree angles with four lines of the same length. It’s symmetrical poetry.

Today I’m tackling “square” phrases. What do they mean, and how did we get them?

If I had a nickel for every time someone called me “square,” I’d be able to retire from being a part-time columnist. “He’s such a square.” In this usage, “square” means nerd, geek, old-fashioned, unpopular, or dorky. It’s middle school all over again. We get this slang usage of square from jazz musicians in the 1940s to refer to a person who didn’t appreciate jazz, but instead preferred passé, oldey-timey music. Back then, it wasn’t hip to be square.

Is that a square deal? What exactly is a square deal? Simply stated, a square deal is a fair, honest trade or transaction. Teddy Roosevelt liked the term so much that he attached it to his labor reform initiatives during the early 1900s. The term “square deal” first shows up in print in the “New York Times” in the 1870s and 1880s to refer to a fair arrangement. As good writers are wont to do, Teddy stole “square deal” and made it his own.

What is a square meal? Is it a lunch comprised of bouillon cubes and saltine crackers? Don’t be ridiculous! A square meal means “a healthy, nourishing meal.” So where does the “square” part come in? Legend has it that we get “square meal” from the square-shaped trays used by England’s Royal Navy. While it is true that the navy’s trays were square, the phrase doesn’t originate there. In fact, the term “square meal” shows up in U.S. newspapers in the mid-19th century, although it’s hard to tell who used it first.

Have you ever heard someone use the term “square the circle”? It means someone is attempting to complete a seemingly impossible task. It could also mean someone is trying to bring together two parties who are completely different. Oil and water. Democrat and Republican. Shark and Jet. “Square the circle” is a phrase we get from geometry; in fact, Greek mathematicians posed the problem of constructing a square with the area of a circle with only a compass and a straightedge. What does that mean? I’m not sure; I don’t let things like this get me bent out of shape.

—Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.