An Aussie reader who reads the column online greeted me one morning (ironically just adjacent to the local roundabout) and asked, rather tersely, “And what about the square?” A question like that can catch anyone on the back foot, and it certainly had me back pedalling. “What about it?” I asked, which is the only reasonable response I could think of. He grinned and informed me that I had invested 600 words or so on the circle the other week, but what about the square?
The penny dropped. This reader, I perceived, was anointing me as some newborn messenger of the shapes. So, after the circle... the square.
In the day when multitasking with Twitter, Facebook et al was a mere mirage-like twinkle on the far horizon, geometers of old (read thousands of years BC) spent some of their quiet moments pondering the imponderable. That is: is it possible to square a circle? (Those sort of questions these days, with Twitter, Facebook et all garnering all our attention don’t seem the kind that are likely to be asked, let alone thought about.)
However, years and years ago, the Babylonian mathematicians (1800BC) were already acquainted with methods to approximate the area of a given circle with a square. The dreaded ‘pi’ was already in their reckoning. As was it with the Indian mathematicians. The Greeks, I believe, arrived at the problem later. Archimedes (who gave English ‘eureka’) and Hippocrates of Chios being only two of those.
By 1822, however, the whole notion of squaring a circle was proved to be impossible. These days, if someone is said to be ‘squaring a circle’ they are believed to be embarking on a venture that is well-nigh impossible.
But while on the subject of squares, what, one might ask, is ‘a square peg in a round hole’? Or, more appropriately, who? A misfit, is the short answer. Or, to be discreet, an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit in easily. It is thought that this idiom dates back to the 1800s too. I say ‘too’ because that is around the time that geometers threw up their hands vis-a-vis squaring the circle.
So I wonder if there is a tenuous link between ‘squaring the circle’ and ‘square pegs in a round hole’?
Anyhow, on with more ‘square’ thoughts. If a person is called ‘a square’, it usually alludes to the fact that he might be dull or rigidly conventional. Music is littered with references to ‘square’. In the 80s, Huey Lewis and the News had a hit with a song called ‘Hip to be Square’, which I have no doubt became the anthem of ‘squares’ everywhere. In Elvis Presley’s, Jailhouse Rock, the warden says, ‘hey buddy don’t you be no square/If you can’t find a partner use a wooden chair.’
Dance has its quota of squares too. Square dances emerged from 17th century England but were equally popular in France and the rest of Europe. (Which, as an aside, is a rare instance of the British and the French being on the same page.) Square dancing, however, is most famously identified with the American cowboys. Apparently nineteen states designate it as their ‘official state dance’. I’d have thought hip hop, krumping and twerking would have overtaken it, but no.
Away from the dance halls, one could be ‘hit squarely between the eyes’, a phrase that needs no explanation.
In cricket, those of us who follow it like there’s no tomorrow, would have heard the term ‘squaring the batsman up’. This of course is accredited to the bowler (in cryptic crosswords referred to as a ‘delivery man’) who may have bowled a delivery that the batsman thought was going one way only to find it going another and so ended up ‘squared up’.
And finally, in finance, if you and someone else are ‘all square’, it means you won’t keep each other going around in circles, because you and he have managed to settle an account, or ‘square a circle’.