Square meal origin and meaning: Why do we say square meal?

Square Watermelon postcard

Unless you count things like cubed watermelons, few of the foods we eat are actually square shaped. So then why do we sometimes call a nourishing and wholesome meal a “square meal”?

Square meal origin

It is generally agreed by etymologists that the term “square meal” arose in 19th century America and it is thought to be derived from the use of the word “square” meaning honest, solid and proper.

Why would a square be associated with honesty and doing things properly?

It may be connected to the fact that a square is not only the geometric shape we’re familiar with. Since the 13th century it’s also been the term describing the tool used to measure right angles. Right angled shapes like squares and rectangles may have been considered as “right” partly because they helped stonemasons ensure they created solid, steady, stable constructions.

The use of the word square as being solid and proper evolved to also mean fair and honorable and it was used in this sense centuries before the coinage of the phrase “square meal”. This is evidenced by its use in a 1591 text by Robert Greene where the term “square play” was used, and it was even used by Shakespeare in his play, Anthony and Cleopatra around 1606.

This use of the word “square” applied to a proper solid meal was a simple extension of the word’s pre-existing use.

Other entertaining (yet untrue) theories for the origin of “square meal”

There are many wonderful folk etymology theories behind the origin of the term “square meal” which though unsubstantiated, are still entertaining. They include the following:

Fabled Theory 1: Square meals relate to square plates used by the Navy

Naval ships used to serve meals on square-shaped wooden plates. These square plates allowed people to sit side-by-side neatly with their plates fitting well together so that their meals were less inclined to slide around the table on choppy seas.

The main reason this theory cannot be true is that there are no written records of the term “square meal” in association with naval records, and instead the term is traced to American slang rising amongst miners many years after square plates were used by the Navy.

Bread Slice bag

Fabled Theory 2: Square meals were square because they were served on a square piece of bread

This theory is that meals were served on square pieces of bread, and that these “square meals” were particularly filling.

A similar theory is that the bread formed the main meal for peasants who couldn’t afford a good meal, so this piece of bread would form their “square meal”.

There is no evidence to support these theories.

Fabled Theory 3: Meals were served on square boards

In Medieval times and thereabouts meals were sometimes served on square wooden boards called “trenchers”. Since your meal was served on this square shaped platter, it was a “square meal”.

Some suggest that this square board was not only the origin of the phrase “square meal” but also of the phrase “bed and board” or “room and board”.

This theory is likely to be untrue due to the American 19th century textual origin of the phrase.

Fabled Theory 4: In the military the eating posture formed a “square” during meals

Formal posture during mealtimes in the US military involved sitting upright and holding the bent arm in a way that it formed a right angle at the elbow. The body-arm positions formed a 3-sided square-like shape, and the eating utensil pointing towards your mouth forming the 4th side of the square. Hence a US military meal would be a squarely eaten meal.

This theory, entertaining as it is to act out, has not been backed up by evidence.

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3 Responses to Square meal origin and meaning: Why do we say square meal?

  1. shelley penner says:

    Here’s another unsubstantiated theory for you — perhaps a meal was considered square when it included four items on the plate: meat, potatoes, vegetables and bread.

  2. Edith Smith says:

    ‘I beg to differ’, my brother was an Air Cadet in the 1944-45 U.S. Air Force, he described
    the “Square Meals” that they were required to eat at that time. Perhaps it was part
    of the process of “washing out” of the Pilot Program which also became popular at that
    time for the young cadets.

  3. Mike A. says:

    In military terms, I always thought it’s a type of indoctrination of the raw meat recruit in being a soldier in command of the himself or the environment, and not the reverse. That you do “go” to your food like an animal, you bring your food to you. And it’s done by sitting in erect posture, back upright, and going through the square motions with the fork. It’s difficult, especially keeping you back upright and not leaning into your food, but it is good training in being a human and not animal!

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