If you've ever heard of someone being called a square, you probably realize it has nothing to do with having four corners. So what does being square mean? The term, most frequently used during the 1940s through the 1960s, has a long history of use.
What is being square?
Beginning with the jazz-loving hipsters of the 1940s, and used by the counterculture movements of almost every generation since, the act of being square refers to thinking inside the box and conforming to societal norms. The term was used by beatniks, hippies, yippies and other cultural movements to oppose more conservative and conventional world views.
To call someone a square usually has negative connotations, and it is generally the same as saying the person is no fun, a Goody Two-shoes or a party pooper.
Hip to be square
Interestingly, there are some positive connotations to the term "square." It is sometimes used to refer to something being good and honest, such as in "fair and square" or "a square deal.'
The Freemasons use the square as one of their major symbols, calling it an emblem of virtue in which they must "square their actions by the square of virtue with all mankind.' This is another case of square referring to something being fair and upstanding.
In the 1980s, many of those who had opposed mainstream society as hippies in the 1960s found themselves fitting into the roles they previously despised and becoming a comfortable part of the middle class. This change is reflected in the song "Hip to Be Square,' by Huey Lewis and the News, in which the band declares "Now I'm playing it real straight, and yes I cut my hair' and points out that many of those who were the most antiauthority went on to become the most square and how that was nothing to be ashamed of.
Examples of use
The term "square" has had many well-known uses in music and popular culture.
In "Jailhouse Rock,' Elvis Presley sings: "The warden said, Hey buddy, don't you be no square / If you can't find a partner, use a wooden chair.'
One of the earliest popular uses of the term is in Harry Gibson's 1946 song "What's His Story?" which includes the lyrics "Saint Peter said, You square, your place is right down there / and the square said, What's his story?'
In the film Pulp Fiction, the character Mia Wallace draws a box in the air with her finger and calls Vincent Vega a square after he refuses to go along with her plans.
Whether you think it's hip to be square or you would rather think outside the box, the term "square" has a colorful history, and it has slightly different meanings to different people. Its use has declined over recent years, but why not try to organize a revival by using the term with your family and friends?