What Does Back To Square One Mean?

Back to Square One Meaning

Definition: To start all over again.

Origin of Back to Square One

Most sources cite board games as the origin of this idiom. Many board games involve progressing forward on the board. Occasionally, something will happen during gameplay that will cause the player to move back to the starting position, which is often a square. This first square is called square one, and, in board games, going back to square one literally means to go back to the beginning.

This explanation seems reasonable, especially because the growth in the popularity of this expression matches the growth of the popularity of board games over the same period of time.

Examples of Back to Square One

back to the square oneHere is an example of the idiom being used by two college friends who are discussing a class project they are working on.

Karl: I’m almost finished with my research.

Frank: Wow! Really? I’m not even halfway through.

Karl: Well, I already knew a lot about the Roman Empire.

Frank: What are you talking about? The assignment isn’t on the Roman Empire. You’re supposed to be writing about ancient Greece.

Karl: Please, tell me you’re kidding.

Frank: I’m not kidding.

Karl: Oh no. I guess it’s back to square one. Unless you think I can just do my project on the Roman Empire instead?

Frank: No way, you’d fail. You have to start all over.

back to square one originIn this example, two friends discuss an unsolved mystery.

Lily: I’m pretty sure I know who stole my sweater.

Grace: It was Magda, wasn’t it?

Lily: No, I think it was Megan. She was always complimenting it, so she had motive. Also, I remember she was acting strangely the last time she came over to visit. It must be because she stole my sweater and felt guilty!

Grace: I hate to tell you this, but it couldn’t have been Megan.

Lily: Why not?

Grace: You have a wool sweater. She’s allergic to wool. She can’t even be near it without sneezing.

Lily: Oh, darn. You’re right. Back to square one!

Grace: Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.

More Examples

In an article about a football team that lost its quarterback, the team has to start all over and find a replacement.

  • Nearly one full season into the post-Peyton timeline, the Broncos are still deciding on a quarterback. They are back to square one, about to enter an offseason still unsure who will be the starting quarterback next season. –Denver Post

In this news excerpt, a mother has to start all over with helping her son get into college after already helping her older child get into a college.

  • Egan’s daughter is now a sophomore in college but the playwright can’t breathe a sigh of relief. Her son is a high school freshman. It’s back to square one. –Chicago Tribune


Back to square one is another way to say return to the starting point.