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What Does "Back to Square One" Mean?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Back to square one" is an idiomatic expression that has to do with starting over after some attempt to accomplish a specific task or goal has failed to produce the desired results. The idiom is used in a number of settings, including in reference to relationship issues, project management tasks, and even in the operation of a business or non-profit organization. There is a difference of opinion on just how this particular English saying entered into the popular vernacular, with some explanations having to do with games.

One popular origin for back to square one has to do with the game of hopscotch. This popular children’s game required the creation of a series of squares, with each square containing a number. As part of the game, a participant must traverse the grid of squares, eventually making the way back to the home square of one, where it is possible to start all over again.

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Another idea o the origin of back to square one also revolves around a children’s game known as Chutes and Ladders. With this board game, landing on a square that is connected with a slide may either cause the player to go back a level, or in the case of a few squares return the player all the way to the first square on the board. Critics of this explanation note that the phrase had been popular for a number of years before this particular board game was developed, although there is some merit in seeing the game as being one means of increasing the popularity of the idiom.

Whatever the origins of back to square one, the phrase is used in a variety of situations today. When a relationship fails, the two parties sometimes see themselves as starting over again with new partners. In the workplace, employees may be back to square one after an attempt to complete an assigned tasks fails, making it necessary to begin once more. Today, students who use word processing programs to write term papers may also find themselves going back to square one if they don’t save the document from time to time and the system shuts down unexpectedly. While going back to square one usually implies some type of previous failure, it also implies the chance to put the past behind and enjoy a fresh start, something that is often a desirable situation.

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