Figurative references to circles, squares, and triangles turn up in a variety of familiar expressions. Here’s a list of many of those idioms and their meanings.
1. To be a square peg in a round hole is to be someone who doesn’t fit in a particular environment, or in certain circumstances.
2. To go back to square one is to start over again because of a setback or an impasse.
3. The expression “Be there, or be square” alludes to often-lighthearted pressure to attend an event or suffer the consequences of being considered conventional and uninteresting.
4–6. To call something square, square something with someone, or square accounts is to agree with another party that neither party owes anything to the other one.
7. To circle around is to move in a circular motion to engage in reconnaissance or to figuratively evaluate a situation.
8. A circular argument is one in which the proposition is assumed to be true.
9. To come (or go) full circle is to figuratively return to one’s starting point.
10. Someone who could fight a circle saw is so tough that the thought of sparring with a deadly power tool does not faze him or her.
11. To say that something doesn’t cut any squares with one means that one refuses to be influenced.
12. To be fair and square is to treat everyone impartially.
13. To look someone square in the eye is to do so directly, indicating honesty.
14. A love, or eternal, triangle is a circumstance in which two people are in love with the same person.
15. To move in the same circles with someone is to have similar tastes and frequent the same locations.
16. Something on the square is done fairly, honestly, and openly.
17. To be out of square is to not be in agreement.
18. To run circles around (or run rings around) someone is to figuratively outcompete him or her to the extent that the other person seems to be standing still.
19. To run around in circles is to figuratively expend much effort with little result because of poor organization or planning.
20. A square answer is an honest one.
21. To square away is to rectify or put in order.
22. A square deal is a fair deal.
23. A square meal is a complete, nutritious set of food servings. “Three square meals” (often abbreviated to “three squares”) refers to the traditional daily schedule of breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or supper).
24. To square off is to prepare to fight or compete.
25. To square up is to settle or reconcile. It also means to confront someone or something courageously.
26. To square one’s shoulders is to literally straighten one’s shoulders before undertaking a difficult task or to figuratively prepare oneself for an effort.
27. To attempt to square the circle is to try to do the impossible.
28. To square something with someone means to obtain approval or permission
29. To speak or talk in circles is to discuss an issue or problem repetitively with no progress.
30. A vicious circle (or vicious cycle) is one in which solutions create new problems.
10 thoughts on “30 Idioms About Common Shapes”
This is the amazing collection of tough idioms about shapes, specially about squares, circles and triangles. Lovely collection, I love it, thanks.
Hello Mr. Nichol,
I don’t see the meaning of #28, or it falls into #4-6?
An addition: Circling the drain is to near the end of life or usefulness, like a household pest being flushed down a toilet.
Don’t have time to read/comment on all right now, but right off the bat, the square-peg/round-hole thing: I have always heard that used (and used myself) when referring to attempting something futile, not when referring to a misfit. Also, #8 also called circular reasoning. And for the kiddie set, “circle time” is that time of day, in nursery school or kindergarten, where the kids are told to sit in a circle and they play circle games (like “Duck, Duck, Goose,” etc). This can also be applied to times when adults get together for relaxation or entertainment, and perhaps somewhat jokingly used when adults are forced to get together at work for brainstorming purposes or whatever.
And then there’s “circle the wagons,” a sort of westward-ho-the-pioneers version of “going to the mattresses.”
I remember many years ago there was a kind of low end but not quite sleazy department store called S. Klein, on 14th Street and Park Avenue South in Manhattan. The sign said “S. Klein On The Square” — the square in question being Union Square, now gentrified within an inch of its life.
@Mary: Blast from the past! I went to NYU undergrad and also eventually worked in downtown Manhattan, first at a “69-cent Store” near Wall Street/WTC, then at a bakery on Houston street (pronounced…), then at Beth Israel Medical Center off 1st and 14th. Also had a boyfriend who lived in Stuyvesant Town (right near Alphabet City), and IIRC, I took classes at an art school around Union Square. I lived in Brooklyn or Queens (depending on what year it was), so I took the subways a lot and definitely was familiar with those areas. However, haven’t been there in…30 years? Can’t say I miss it much, but thanks for the memories!
Good list, thanks.
I disagree with #8. I would suggest that a circular argument is one where the answer is dependent on the proposition. Christians are accused of a circular arguments when they say, “The Bible is God’s word.” “How do you know?” “Because the Bible says so.”
Having said that, I see what you mean: the proposition is assumed to be true. Your emphasis is on the word “assumed”.
Thanks for catching that omission. The meaning of “to square something with someone” is different than that of the expressions listed in items 4–6: It refers to obtaining approval or permission.
I’m usually not one to nitpick, but #10 caught my attention. Where I grew up we called them circular saws.
Yes: circular saw, and not “circle saw”.
A.K.A. “Skil saw” after the most common brand name of these saws in North America.
My great uncle cut of half of his finger while using a Skil saw!