Saturday, April 23, 2011

Square Meal

Les from Petoskey asked about the origin of “square meal.” Like many other phrases or expressions, fanciful explanations have sprung up over the centuries. Let’s get some of them out of the way before proceeding.

One explanation brings up rolling seas and seasoned sailors. This story claims that they ate from square wooden boards with built-up edges to keep food from slipping and sliding off the plate. When they were given a square meal, it filled the square board. Another story says that travelers always carried their squares with them in hopes that someone would bounteously heap the plate with viands. A third story refers to military academies and their treatment of plebes, who were required to sit at attention when eating and to move their arms at right angles only – thus tracing a square.

When you assess stories such as these, you can’t go by frequency. Phony stories have a tendency to go viral. Instead, you need to consult recognized experts. I’ve prepared a Rollyo search engine that excludes as many unreliable sources as possible. You’ll find it under LINKS in the column to the right. The url is In this case, it brought up Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words and his trustworthy professional explanation.

A careful look at the Oxford English Dictionary shows how the meaning of square evolved. It started as something sturdily built, something with solid right angles that would hold their shape. A couple of hundred years later, it meant forthright and reliable. By mid-19th century, thanks to usage in American mining camps, square meal emerged: a solid, substantial, and filling meal.

Two explicit quotes are worth a look. First, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of 1865:

“A square meal is not, as may be supposed, a meal placed upon the table in the form of a solid cubic block, but a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance.” Second, All Year Round of September 1868: “Roadside hotel keepers . calling the miners' attention to their ‘square meals’: by which is meant full meals.”

SIDEBAR: Words to the Wise received a favorable review in Andrea McDougal’s Word Nerds Rejoice: Top 25 Blogs For Editing Geeks.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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