Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, my favorite words, second only to ‘books.’
It’s tempting to look for origins based on a literal reading of the words. For example, sailors used to eat off square wooden boards and, after a heavy watch were given a large meal which filled the board — a square meal.
Another example: in ye olde Britain, a dinner plate was a square piece of wood with a bowl carved out to hold a serving of whatever stew was bubbling over the fire. You always took your ‘square’ with you when you went traveling, ready for a square meal.
In former times in the US military, members were required to sit formally at meals, bolt upright with arms at right-angles, so forming a square shape. So a meal in the mess was always a square meal.
Fun ideas, but these only prove that humans have imagination.
The phrases ‘square deal’ or ‘fair and square’ are only two which also use ‘square’ for something that is fair, honest, or straightforward. Several such phrases date to the seventeenth century and perhaps earlier. They arise from the idea that something made with exact right angles has been properly constructed.
‘Square meal’ arose in America and seems to have come out of miners’ slang from the western side of the country. One of the oldest examples appeared in the Mountain Democrat of Placerville, California (a gold-mining town) of 8 November 1856: “We have secured the services of an excellent cook, and can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and a ‘square meal,’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune.’”
Another appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of 1865, about the mining town of Virginia City in Nevada, created to serve the famous Comstock lode. “Says the proprietor of a small shanty, in letters that send a thrill of astonishment through your brain: ‘LOOK HERE! For fifty cents you CAN GET A GOOD SQUARE MEAL at the HOWLING WILDERNESS SALOON!’”
The writer went on to explain this strange phrase: “A square meal is a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance.”
Sounds very substantial! Eggs and bacon and a side of toast for me, please.