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An Indian Snakes and Ladders board.

Consider this a hat tossed into a ring. Yes, the phrase back to square one has resonances on both sides of the Atlantic and yes, its true origin is lost to the fug of history, but the theories as to how it came to be used as a common expression of ripping things up and starting again, of going back to the drawing board, contain a couple of thumbnail sketches of British cultural life that go back nearly 100 years. And as that is what we are all about here on Anglophenia, let’s get started, shall we?

It has been claimed that the phrase originates from BBC radio broadcasts of football (meaning soccer) matches, way back in the late 1920s. The Radio Times had a map you could pop on your lap while listening, and the commentators would say whereabouts on the pitch the ball had gone according to an eight-square grid. So you’d hear commentry like:

“And that’s Greaves – THREE – passing to Aintree – FIVE – who takes it past one defender, two… he’s lining up for a shot – TWO – AH! He’s lost possession. A deft kick from Davies has sent the ball back to SEVEN, and the strikers are ready to start again.”

So the idea was, if an attacking team had to go back to square one, it meant the ball was near their goal, at the bottom end of the Radio Times map. This, the theory goes, then became transferred for use in other situations.

There are a couple of problems with this theory. Football is a two-way sport. One of the teams would have had to go back to square one, but the other team would have had to go back to square eight, and the commentators will have been at pains not to appear biased in any way, so it seems really unlikely that this one little nugget will have endured.

The other problem is that square one was where you’d think it would be, the bottom left-hand corner of the map. That’s not where football plays start from. To reset a game, you start again at the centre spot, which is at the meeting point of THREE, FOUR, FIVE and SIX.

To counter the football idea, some people claim the phrase came from the fine old Indian board game Snakes and Ladders, in which you can be sent back to square one if you land on the wrong snake (although it’s a cruel Snakes and Ladders board that takes you right back to the start in this way). Then there’s the thought that it came from hopscotch, which does at least have an actual square with a one in it, which you start on, and can be required to go back to.

It’s most likely, given that Snakes and Ladders (or Chutes and Ladders) came to England in late Victorian times, and so many of our odder expressions came from this era, this is the true origin of the phrase, but given that the earliest recorded written use doesn’t appear until 1952, it’s hard to be truly sure.

But while the football explanation appears far-fetched, it’s also a snapshot of the earliest days of multimedia broadcasting from the comfort of your armchair. The Radio Times map, for anyone who grew up with the idea of interactive red buttons on TV sets or live-tweeting America’s Got Talent, is where all that stuff began.

Should social media ever need to go back to square one, there are worse places to start from.

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine