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Why Does ‘Square’ Mean ‘Uncool’?

If a square meal is a good balanced meal, why is being square uncool?

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read

Daniel had a good question about the "square meal" segment from last week’s show:

[VOICEMAIL] "Hi, Mignon. This is Daniel from Kansas City, Missouri. I just got done listening to your latest podcast about the word ‘square’ ... ‘square meal,’ ‘square deal,’ and so on. And so how did the word 'square' … at one point was a good thing but then in the 1950s, being a square was not a good thing. It was uncool. You know the phrase ‘be there or be square’ implies that if you don't attend the certain event, you're uncool. So how did the meeting change? And why did the meeting change from something just fair and equitable to uncool? I was just wondering if you knew that. Bye."

Great question! So here’s what I found. 

The idea of “square” being uncool started in the United States jazz scene in the 1920s according to the World Wide Words website, although the first written example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1946 (also attributed to the U.S. jazz scene). 

A square was originally someone who didn’t appreciate jazz, and Etymonline has the charming story that it comes from the “shape of a conductor's hand gestures in a regular four-beat rhythm,” presumably in contrast to the more free rhythm of jazz. If you were square, you liked that old style of music with the four beats.

From those origins of not appreciating jazz, “square” expanded to include the idea of not being in touch with popular, contemporary ideas. And World Wide Words wisely points out that it’s not much of a stretch to go from the idea of being properly arranged and in good order to the idea of being boringly conventional, especially if the people calling other people square consider themselves to be avant-garde or edgy.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.