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On the level

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on October 24, 2008 at 11:17

In Reply to: On the level posted by Joy on October 24, 2008 at 07:09:

: I would like to know the origin of the cliche "on the level".

It's a term from Freemasonry, which uses stonecutting and the tools of that trade as metaphors for moral qualities. Initiates to the Craft are told, for example, that the "square" symbolises fair (or "square") dealing, that the compasses teach us to "keep within compass", and so on.

That said, the use of these tools as moral symbols actually long predates the creation of Freemasonry, and has continued outside it. (Items such as 18th and 19th-century transfer-printed ceramics often depict them - "keep within compass" with the appropriate symbol was a popular motto - and for this reason are often mistaken for "masonic" artefacts.) These are such natural metaphors that we would probably say things like "fair and square" and "I'll level with you", even if there had never been such a thing as Freemasonry. But the specific phrase "on the level" does come directly from masonic ritual. (VSD)