‘Back To Square One’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 18, 2023

Did someone use the phrase 'back to square one,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short:

  • 'Back to square one' means to start over.

What Does 'Back to Square One' Mean?

The phrase ‘back to square one’ means to go back to the beginning after a failure or reaching a dead-end. In short, this is an idiom that means “to start over.”

You'll also hear the expression 'back at square one,' replacing the word 'to' with 'at.' This has the same meaning and is just another way of expressing the same concept.

For example:

  • Let's say that you have spent significant time rehabilitating your leg after you broke it. If you succumbed to another injury after you had made a lot of progress, you might feel like you're 'back to square one.'

Where Does 'Back to Square One' Come From?

The origin of the phrase ‘back to square one’ isn’t known for certain. There are three primary theories regarding how the expression came about.

These are:

  1. Board games such as “Snakes and Ladders.”
  2. BBC sports commentaries
  3. Playground games such as hopscotch

Let’s explore each theory and see which one holds water.

Originating From Board Games

One of the most common origins you'll hear for this idiom is from the game Snakes and Ladders. Also known as Chutes and Ladders, the UK publication The Economic Journal from 1952 used the idiom in question:

"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."

Another UK newspaper, The Liverpool Echo, uses the phrase while referencing the boardgame:

"If the farmer wins, the line may have to be changed. In a game of snakes and ladders, the Ministry planners may find themselves back at square one."

Originating From BBC Sports Commentaries

You'll also hear that the idiom comes from BBC football (aka soccer) and rugby commentaries. Early radio commentaries divided the field into eight different boxes so that the commentator could easily explain which "square" the ball was currently in.

Though this seems like a plausible explanation, it doesn't appear that the phrase 'back to square one' was used in these commentaries.

This origin story further falls apart when one realizes that the position marked as "area one" isn't where the game would begin. The area is, instead, near the opponent's goal for each team.

Originating From Playground Games

Finally, there is the theory that the phrase comes from playground games like hopscotch.

The rules of hopscotch can vary a bit. However, it typically involves players throwing a stone and hopping from square to square, skipping the one where the stone landed.

They would typically go 'back to square one' after hopping through the field.

Use of the Idiom in Publications

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that this phrase really didn't gain traction until the second half of the 20th century.

Our first example comes from a 1975 publication from the United States Congress entitled Narcotic Addiction Treatment and Rehabilitation Programs:

"Yes, sir. Thank you, Dr. DuPont, for the statement. And I do not fully understand why there has been a delay of 6 weeks in the testimony, but in any event you say you are back at square one. And you see no impediment in the legislation."

Another government document from 1977 uses the phrase as well, this time in a publication called Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations For Fiscal Year 1997:

"That means that there would be a good possibility that the designs chosen would later be found to be deficient or unacceptable from a safety standpoint, an environmental standpoint, a national resource or economic standpoint. This could send the PNGV demonstration vehicle designs back to "square one" and set back the PNGV program back sever years."

A third example comes from a U.S. Congress document from 1974 called Committee Reform Amendments of 1974:

"In a sense, I would not be adverse to going back to square one on this matter and thinking about that."

Examples of This Idiom In Sentences

How would this expression be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "It's okay that we didn't attain the results we were looking for. All this means is that it's time to head back to square one."
  • "I've made a huge mistake. I chose this career for all the wrong reasons, and now it's back to square one."
  • "I've been keeping that diary for my entire life, and now it's gone. It feels like I'm going back to square one."
  • "I can't believe our boss changed the meeting topic this late in the game. Now it's back to square one."
  • "They aren't concerned with the fact that we have to go back to square one. They just want us to achieve the results they asked for in the first place."
  • "After Tom left me, I felt like I was back at square one. Looking back, though, it's obvious it was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Other Ways to Say 'Back to Square One'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'back to square one'?

Here are some options:

  • Back to the drawing board
  • Start from scratch
  • Start with a clean slate

Final Thoughts About 'Back to Square One'

'Back to square one' is a very common English expression that means to start over from the beginning. This is a phrase you can use when you've made a mistake or reached a dead end and have to start the same project or task over again.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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