An easy one today children, but some people were asking me about it, and, as you well know, I live to serve.
The phrase ‘a square meal’, meaning, ‘a substantial, nourishing meal’ is often said to have originated from the Royal Navy, as originate the majority of the interesting idioms I have encountered. More specifically, it is rather rashly claimed that the phrase comes from the Royal Navy’s practise of serving its sailors their meals on square wooden plates.
This explanation sounds likely, but hang on a minute there at the back, I’m not quite finished. You see sometimes these things are just too neat to be true. For one thing, I doubt that the meals the Royal Navy fed to its sailors would have been anything approaching substantial or nourishing, which meant that some bright spark on board would have had to have coined the term with a sarcastic meaning in mind. A tall order for your average C19th sailor. And that’s the other thing – the first recorded instance of the expression is in 1856, in an advertisement for the Hope and Neptune restaurant, in the California newspaper The Mountain Democrat, November 1856. It goes as follows:
“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice.”
Now if the phrase was indeed a child of the Royal Navy, then surely it would have been recorded somewhere in the Royal Navy’s logbooks sometime before 1856. The fact that it is not mentioned suggests an alternative derivation.
As we can see from the above, ‘a square meal’ is an American expression, which means that it is likely to have a simple origin (Americans being themselves simple). Indeed for our answer we need look no further than the word ‘square’, which has many meanings, including ‘proper, honest, straightforward’. And there we have it. We are not talking about a meal served on right-angled crockery, but a proper, honest feast.