phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

A Square Meal

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on November 08, 2005

In Reply to: A Square Meal posted by Steve E on November 08, 2005

: : : : I have been aboard many old sailing ships, including the HMS Victory and on every occasion the tables are 'dressed' with the square wooden plates rimmed to avoid spillage. The plate allowed what was thought to be sufficient food and would not be higher than the rim. There is no doubt in my mind and that of naval historians that 'A Square Meal' relates to this and not, as you seem to be so assured, to be of US origin first used in 1878!!

: : : it should be easy for you then to find an earlier text reference. We'll correct the record immediately after.

: : On the grounds of simple logic: if it were standard to provide meals on board ship on square plates, why would there be a phrase describing this? After all, on land it is the norm (certainly among those known to me) to eat off round plates, but no one ever speaks of a 'round meal' as it would be considered totally unnecessary.

: : For a sailor to speak of his meal as 'square' meaning the shape of the plate would surely meet with bafflement: 'it's obviously square, why are you bothering to tell me?'

: I have always understood the phrase "square meal" to mean that the meal was complete and satisfying to the person eating the meal as opposed to a light meal or snack that left the person hungry or wanting more. A panhandler might say: "I hit this guy up for $5.00 and got me the first square meal I've had in weeks"--meaning his first full complete meal.

Which is borne out by the existence, in late 19th-century American English, of the phrase "a square drink" I can't think of any conceivable nautical explanation for that!