I never dare go with my husband to any restaurant that uses square plates or he will play up the horrors of these ceramic items, huffing and puffing and pretending that he can’t stow his knife and fork without their falling off. When the subject attracted the attention of readers of the Daily Telegraph recently, one of them wrote in to say that square wooden plates were ‘standard issue in ships of the line in Nelson’s day’. Sailors were fed a hot meat meal every day, he pointed out, and ‘the practice led to the expression “a square meal”, meaning a good one’.
This is a nice idea, but there is no evidence for it. Even Admiral W.H. Smyth in his Sailor’s Word-Book (1867), a proselytising attempt to claim naval origins for words and phrase, does not go so far. Smyth, who never went to sea again after 1824, had advanced on shore from captain to admiral by 1863. He devoted his time to literature and astronomy, and a sea on the moon is named after him. The nearest he got in his Word-Book to a square meal was the phrase ‘Square-sterned and British built’, expressing ‘the peculiar excellence of our first-class merchantmen’. Huzzah!
The Oxford English Dictionary suspects no naval connection, whether related to plates or not, declaring that square meal is American in origin. But it also records the phrases ‘square eater’ and ‘square drinker’ from the 17th century. In 1611, Randle Cotgrave gave square drinker as the equivalent of the French un ferial beuveur, ‘one that will take his liquor soundly’. It all fits with the areas of meaning that square covers, a square man being a solid one in Shakespeare’s day.
I’m glad to say that Michael Quinion, the sage curator of World Wide Words, is of the same mind as I am here, calling the wooden plate hypothesis ‘rubbish, of course’. He has run down an example of the phrase from 1856 in the Mountain Democrat of Placerville, California (a gold-mining town), where the Hope and Neptune ‘can promise all who patronise us that they can always get a hearty welcome and a “square meal”.’