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On the level

Posted by ESC on October 24, 2008 at 11:58

In Reply to: On the level posted by Victoria S Dennis on October 24, 2008 at 11:17:

: : 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)

TO BE ON THE LEVEL - Straightforward, sincere. American phrase, nineteenth century, ".may have come from Freemasonry, in which the carpenter's level symbolizes integrity." This source has a quote from a 1936 novel, Death in Ectasy by Ngaio Marsh. "Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches," second edition, edited by Christine Ammer, Checkmark Books, New York, 2006. Page 305.

SQUARE, ON THE (ON THE LEVEL) -- "...Both of these expressions were taken from the ritual of Freemasonry and both are of legendary antiquity. In the rites of the lodges, however, the level, an instrument used by builders to determine a common plane, is actually a symbol of equality. The square, an instrument of equally great precision for determining accurately an angle of ninety degrees, the fourth part of a circle, is a symbol of morality, truth, and honesty. 'The Encyclopedia of Freemasonry' (1916 edition) relates: 'In the year 1830, the architect, in rebuilding a very ancient bridge called Baal Bridge over Limerick, in Ireland, found under the foundation-stone an old brass square, much eaten away, containing on the two surfaces the following inscription (dated 1517)(V carved as U):
From Heavens to Betsy! and Other Curious Sayings by Charles Earle Funk (Harper & Row, New York, 1955).

In use: the song "Grandpa was a Carpenter."
.He was level on the level
And shaved even every door
And voted for Eisenhower
'Cause Lincoln won the war.

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