Be square with me
Posted: 06 November 2007 09:27 AM   [ Ignore ]
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A national geographic program last night on free masonry says that this phrase and the phrase “on the level” come from the free masons.  They also say the “third degree” comes from free masonry (which is Dave’s conclusion as well on the Big List).

It sounds reasonable to me.  But is it right?

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Posted: 06 November 2007 10:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The OED2 offers no support for the idea.  If one wants to believe, it’s virtually impossible to disprove, since the early history of the Freemasons is obscure.  “On the level” = honest is cited back to 1872; “square” in the sense of honest and fair back to 1591.  IMHO both are pretty obvious metaphorical uses that could have arisen just as easily among real masons, or carpenters, surveyors, or any of dozens of other trades, as among Freemasons.  Personally, I wouldn’t put any credence in it without actual evidence, which I doubt was provided.

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Posted: 06 November 2007 01:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Since the formal organization of freemasons dates from the 18th century, it does seem that at least one of the phrases predates the purported source.

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Posted: 06 November 2007 02:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Not necessarily, Jim: the Baal’s Bridge Square dates, according to the illustration at that link, to 1507, and according to this site, quoting Heavens to Betsy by Charles Earle Funk (Harper & Row, New York, 1955):

‘The Encyclopedia of Freemasonry’ (1916 edition) relates: ‘In the year 1830, the architect, in rebuilding a very ancient bridge called Baal Bridge over Limerick, in Ireland, found under the foundation-stone an old brass square, much eaten away, containing on the two surfaces the following inscription (dated 1517) [sic - Z]
I. WILL. STRIUE. TO. LIVE -
WITH. LOUE. & CARE. -
UPON. THE. LEUL. -
BY. THE. SQUARE.”

Masons “met on the level” and “departed on the square” at the lodge, and to be “on the square” is to be a Mason, so that one Mason would ask another of a third: “Is he on the square?”.

I don’t need to say, I’m sure, that levels and squares (and compasses) were ancient builders’ tools, and were used as symbols by others than the freemasons, including bricklayers.

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Posted: 06 November 2007 02:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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This discussion reminds me of a conversation I had with a hostess, which is to say a woman serving beer from behind the bar at a wedding. She was a regular employee of establishments hired for gatherings and conventions. She had once worked at a party where there were many “spooks” in one of those governmental agencies that employ “spooks.” Remarkable to her was that each and every one of them greeted each other in more or less the same fashion: “Hi Joe, Mary, Tim, are you here alone?” It was code language for something she couldn’t figure out. Nor could I.

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Posted: 06 November 2007 02:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Now you’ve done it.  They’re closing in on this thread as we speak.  Get out—now!

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Posted: 07 November 2007 07:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I don’t need to say, I’m sure, that levels and squares (and compasses) were ancient builders’ tools, and were used as symbols by others than the freemasons, including bricklayers.

Indeed they were; and not only by craftsmen. From the 15th to the 18th century there was a whole genre of publication known as “symbol books” in which motifs of all kinds were illustrated with explanatory texts showing what they symbolised and how they could be used in art and decor to convey moral messages. Squares, levels and compasses routinely featured in these books, along with other tools. So if you were to find, for example, an 18th-century fan decorated with a pair of compasses and the motto “Keep within Compass”, you should by no means assume it has any Masonic connection, though plenty of people do.

A fraternal society called the Ancient Order of Free Gardeners, founded in Scotland flourished in the 17th-19th centuries; it actually may have been older than Freemasonry. Its prime symbol was the set-square (symbolising fairness, balance, firmness), the compass (symbolising the need to draw appropriate limits - to “keep within compass") - and the pruning-knife (symbolising the cutting away of vices and the engrafting of virtues). In any collection of Masonic jewels, you’re likely to find at least one Free Gardener jewel, simply because practically everybody, both Masons and non-Masons, takes it for granted that anything with the square and compasses has to be Masonic.

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Posted: 07 November 2007 09:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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The origins of freemasonry are not as obscure as they used to be.  See “The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century, 1590 to 1710” by David Stevenson for a non-axe-grinding study by an actual scholar.  It turns out that they derived neither from the pharoahs nor the Templars.  Who would have guessed?

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