Etymologies: “Be there or be square”

be there or be square: if you are not present at said event, you are not part of the ‘in crowd’


The term originates in 18th century England, during the industrial revolution. It relates to a law (1) passed in 1782 stating that “when the head of the man turns square, no further work shall they dare”. The figurate language of the law referred to the fact that if a worker became disoriented or mentally incapacitated from over work, they would be given the rest of the day off, along with pay. Workers soon found a loophole in the law, and began wearing boxes on their heads when going to work (2). Judges at the time ruled that according to the letter of the law, these workers had to be given the prescribed amount of time off. Soon knowledge of this tactic became widespread and people knew they had two options when it came to work: to be there or to be square. The current meaning came about when factory owners began a slew of propaganda, giving ‘being square’ a negative connotation. However this didn’t have the effect they’d hoped and eventually the law had to be reworded in order to avoid the loophole (3).


1 – The “Inverse Square Law”.

2 – In fact the term loophole originates from the holes these men would carve into the boxes in order to see, literally ‘keeping them in the loop’.

3 – Ironically leading to many box making factory owners losing their jobs.


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