Next stop, Moody Blue hair.

Dear Word Detective: I was listening to a Huey Lewis and the News song “Hip to be Square” and that got me to wondering where the word “square,” meaning nerdy or not with it, comes from. What say ye, oh Emperor of Etymology? — Harry.

Huey Lewis? Oh my. You should be careful with that sort of thing, you know? One minute you’re innocently listening to your car radio in traffic, reliving the carefree 1980s, “Back to the Future” and all that. But the next thing you know you’re waving your Bic at one of those Geezer Rock Reunion concerts public TV runs during pledge drives. Then you start ordering all your old James Taylor LPs on CD. Then you move to some development called “Silver Waves” in Florida where you drive your golf cart to dinner at 4:30. But it’s never too late to rage, rage, against the pastel horror. Personally, I recommend homebrew absinthe and lots of really loud zydeco.

Just kidding, of course. I’m more the black coffee and Bach type (which might strike some people as “square,” but those people probably drink Folgers and simply don’t get Bach). “Square” is, of course, a highly subjective label, and even the generally-accepted terms for the opposite of “square” have their own constantly-changing fashions (“hip”? “cool”? “hot”?). You know you’re dancing on the razor’s edge of high culture when saying “hip” makes you “square.”

Some fields of human endeavor are, however, apparently exempt from this Manichaean “cool” vs. “square” debate and are considered permanently “cool.” One of these blessed realms is jazz, so it’s appropriate that “square” meaning “boring, conventional, conservative, out of touch” began as slang among jazz musicians in the late 1920s. The criterion at the time for seeming “square” to jazz musicians was, not surprisingly, simply not properly appreciating jazz. But by the end of World War II, “square” had spread into teen slang and broadened in meaning to include anything and anyone that bored American teenagers.

In adopting the term “square” to their own use, the jazz musicians were, ironically, simply employing a very old sense of “square” meaning “fair, honest, reliable or in proper order” (still heard in phrases such as “square deal”). This “square,” which dates back to at least the 16th century, rests in turn on the use of “square” to mean “equal” (as are the sides of a geometric square) or “solid, steady” (as a structure with properly square joints). The use of “square” in “square meal” conveys the same sense of “proper and substantial” (and, despite the popular legend, has nothing to do with square plates). As slang for the conservative types of music jazz marked a radical departure from, “square” was a perfect fit.

1 comment on this post.
  1. Paul Nichols:

    It’s interesting that this writer notes that “square” means “nerdy” or “not with it.” Seeing as how “square” predates both of those terms, perhaps you should have etymologized about them, too.

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