The Navy claim it, the Army claim it — are either of them right?
English is a magpie language and has always ‘borrowed’ words or phrases from other languages liberally. An often quoted example of this is the inclusion of words like ‘pyjama’, ‘bungalow’, ‘gymkhana’ and so on, ‘borrowed’ from India during the British involvement in that countries history. But there are three sources of British English phrases which are seen to have had a truly significant impact on the language: They are the Bible, the Navy and the Bard.
The Bible here is the King James Version, the first translation of the whole bible from, in sections, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin. Although there are other translations, this version is regarded as — pun intended — something of a holy grail and there are myriad phrases that have entered everyday speech — apple of my eye, sign of the times, a fly in the ointment, by the skin of your teeth - to name but a few.
The Navy covers both military and merchant marine. A small island nation, the sea was the sole source of foreign trade for centuries and was hugely significant to the British. The devil to pay, a shot across the bow, in the doldrums, these are all naval.
The Bard is William Shakespeare, arguably the most inflential playright and poet in the history of the language — certainly one of the most colourful. To what extent he coined the phrases he used and how much was simply that he was the one to record phrases in use by others is less clear, but he has made glorious contribtions to the language — all the glitters is not gold (although that is actually a misquote, WS wrote ‘glisters’), all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women simply players, if music be the food of love, play on!- these and many, many more.
So what of our phrase, then, to have a square meal? We understand it to mean decent, proper, adequate, satisfying. There are regular claims that this comes from the British Royal Navy. Ships carpenter’s certainly made plates for sailors to eat from and they were at least sometimes square — hence, it is said, a square meal (in the 17th — 19th century Navy, wood was plentiful, cheap, there were skilled craftsmen on board who could work it, etc). Chatham Navy Dockyard museum, amongst others, has images of square plates. Square plates were easy to stack and store, would not break if they fell of a table and so on. All very logical, but sadly there is nothing to support the theory that this is the origin of the phrase — this seems to be more an example of making a phrase fit some historic facts: There were some square, wooden plates men in the navy ate off, therefore that is where ‘to get a square meal’ came from. Actually, the phrase cannot be found in print until the mid 19th century.
People connected the US Army have given me another version of the origin of this phrase and with just as much confidence as the Royal Navy version. This relates to the US Army officer school, the West Point Military Academy (and possibly, the Navy equivalent at Annapolis). It is certainly the case that at both of these establishments, students had to sit at and eat at attention, back straight, legs at right angles, and move food from plate to mouth in two straight lines — up from the plate, then in a line into the mouth. This has also, for obvious reasons, been described as a square meal — but there is no evidence to suggest that this is where the phrase originated.
So,, where is it from? The Oxford English Dictionary rules out the Royal Navy connection, suggesting the phrase is American in origin: But not West Point. The earliest example reported (according to Michael Quinton of World Wide Words) is from a news sheet, the Mountain Democrat of Placerville, California in 1856. Here, an establishment called the ‘Hope and Neptune’ promises customers that “they can always get a hearty welcome and a ‘square meal’”: And that’s it. It means what we all understand it to mean and the ‘square’ is as in ‘fair and square’ and ‘square deal’ (interestingly, if irrelevant, the Bard has a go, where in the play ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ he says “She’s a most triumphant Lady, if report be square to her”)
A final point. The people who claim ‘square meal’ for the British Royal Navy will also tell you that the square wooden plates had raised edges (called ‘fiddles’) to stop food sliding off, and it you overfilled your plate, you would be ‘on the fiddle’. It’s a lovely image, but entirely unsupported by evidence. Ships did (and do) have devices to stop things falling off shelves and they are sometimes called fiddles, but beyond that this again seems to be reverse engineering a well-known phrase to fit a possible origin, nothing more.
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