The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a ‘square meal’ square?

Q: Why do we call a balanced meal a “square meal” rather than a well-rounded one?

A: The phrase “square meal” is derived from the use of the adjective “square” to mean just, equitable, honest, or straightforward, senses that began showing up in the late 16th century and gave rise to such expressions as “playing square,” “a square deal,” “the square thing,” “on the square,” and “fair and square.”

An early example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “square” meaning honest is from a pamphlet that purports to be a defense of Elizabethan con men, but actually exposes their tricks with humorous tales of double-dealing:

“For feare of trouble I was fain [glad] to try my good hap [fortune] at square play” (The Defence of Conny Catching, 1592, by Cuthbert Cunny-Catcher, pseudonym of the English author Robert Green). “Coney catching,” Elizabethan slang for chicanery, comes from “coney” (spelled various ways), a tame rabbit raised to be eaten.

Over the years, the adjective “square” took on various other senses that may have contributed to its use in the expression “square meal,” which showed up in the US in the mid-19th century.

In the early 17th century, “square” was used to describe someone who was “solid or steady (at eating or drinking),” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example refers to “a square drinker, a faithfull drunkard; one that will take his liquor soundly” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

The next citation, which we’ve expanded, describes gluttons: “By Heaven, square eaters! More meat, I say! Upon my conscience, the poor rogues have not eat this month! How terribly they charge upon their victuals!” (from Bonduca, a tragicomedy written sometime before 1625 by the Jacobean playwright John Fletcher).

In the early 19th century, “square” came to mean balanced or in good order. Here’s an OED example from Mr. Midshipman Easy, an 1836 novel by Frederick Marryat:

“If she is unhappy for three months, she will be overjoyed for three more when she hears that I am alive, so it will be all square at the end of the six.”

As for “square meal,” when the phrase showed up in American English it referred to a “full, solid, substantial” meal, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an article about the American West in a British periodical. We’re expanding the quotation to give more of the context:

“Roadside hotel-keepers are every now and then calling the miners’ attention to their ‘square meals’: by which is meant full meals, in contradistinction to the imperfect dinner a man has to put up with on the mountains.” (From the Sept. 19, 1868, issue of All the Year Round, a literary magazine edited and owned by Charles Dickens.)

However, we’ve seen several earlier examples online, including this one from a restaurant ad in an American newspaper:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice” (from the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., Nov. 8, 1856).

Standard dictionaries now define “square meal” as one that’s balanced or nutritious as well as substantial.

Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) defines it as “a substantial, satisfying, and balanced meal,” and gives this among its examples: “Daily physical fitness is just as crucial to good health as getting three square meals and eight hours of shut-eye.”

As for the early etymology, English borrowed the adjective “square” from Old French in the late 14th century, but it ultimately comes from exquadrāre, a colloquial Latin term composed of ex- (out) and quadrāre (to make square).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective refers to “a Square plate perced with a certein holes” (from A Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1391, an instructional manual by Chaucer for an instrument used by astronomers and navigators to take celestial readings).

The Latin term exquadrāre is also the source of the noun “square,” which showed up in the 13th century, and the verb, which appeared in the late 14th. The noun originally referred to an L-shaped carpenter’s square while the verb meant to reshape something into a square form.

The first OED citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1300:

“And do we wel and make a toure / Wit suire and scantilon sa euen, / Þat may reche heghur þan heuen” (“And let us make a tower with square and gauge that may reach higher than heaven”). The poem expands on Genesis 11:4 by adding the reference to “suire and scantilon,” Middle English terms for a carpenter’s square and gauge for measuring dimensions.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb, which we’ve expanded, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The kyng comaundide, that thei shulden take the greet stoonus, and the precious stoonus, into the foundment of the temple, and thei shulden square hem” (“The king commanded that they should take the great stones, and the precious stones, and they should square them for the foundation of the temple”). The biblical passage is 1 Kings 5:17.

In closing, we should note that there are several myths about the origin of “square meal.” The most common folk etymology is that the expression is derived the square wooden plates once used for meals in the Royal Navy. Forget about it.

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