Square peg in a round hole

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This article is about the idiom. For the mathematical conundrum, see squaring the circle. For the Apparatjik album, see Square Peg In A Round Hole (album).

"Square peg in a round hole" is an idiomatic expression which describes the unusual individualist who could not fit into a niche of his or her society.[1]

The metaphor was originated by Sydney Smith in "On the Conduct of the Understanding", one of a series of lectures on moral philosophy that he delivered at the Royal Institution in 1804–06:

If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes,—some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong,—and the person acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other.[2]

The Oxford English Dictionary has as its earliest citation Albany Fonblanque, England under Seven Administrations, 1837, "Sir Robert Peel was a smooth round peg, in a sharp-cornered square hole, and Lord Lyndenurst is a rectangular square-cut peg, in a smooth round hole."

NOTE: Settlers actually pounded square-cut pegs into round holes when building in the 1800s. http://www.dutchbarns.org/dbpsnewssp90.htm

English literature[edit]

The British novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton published the metaphor in a late 19th-century book:

Kenelm Chillingly asks, "Does it not prove that no man, however wise, is a good judge of his own case? Now, your son's case is really your case —- you see it through the medium of your likings and dislikings, and insist upon forcing a square peg into a round hole, because in a round hole you, being a round peg, feel tight and comfortable. Now I call that irrational."

The farmer responded, "I don't see why my son has any right to fancy himself a square peg ... when his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, have been round pegs; and it is agin' nature for any creature not to take after its own kind."

— Edward Bulwer Lytton, Kenelm Chillingly, His Adventures and Opinions[3]

Business management[edit]

This idiomatic expression has proven to be quite durable into the 21st century. It is used in a range of contemporary business-related circumstances; and illustrative examples include:

"As they say, you can't fit a square peg in a round hole. If your boss is like that round hole and you are that square peg, you aren't going to fit in unless you re-shape your edges."
-- Gini Graham Scott in A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses: Dealing with Bullies, Idiots, Back-stabbers, and Other Managers from Hell (2005).[4]

Visual meaning[edit]

The idiomatic expression conjures a visual image, and this is evolving independently, e.g.,

  • "We intend to show that Israel needs a security process as well as a peace process.... To continue with the old diplomatic approach would be like hammering square pegs into round holes." -- Dore Gold[5]
  • "... relating back to the title of the panel session, square peg in a round hole; well, maybe, but sometimes you can force that peg in and make it stick. We seem to be somewhere between a feeling of cautious optimism and open-minded skepticism about the workability of disease management in fee-for-service Medicare. -- Bruce Steinwald, Director of Economics and Payment Issues in the Health Division at the U.S. General Accounting Office [6]

Similar expressions[edit]

Sejong the Great of Korea commented, in 1443, that using Chinese characters for Korean was “like trying to fit a square handle into a round hole”.[7] He subsequently developed the Hangul phonetic alphabet.

There is a Chinese idiom "方枘圆凿", or "方凿圆枘", (literally and respectively "square tenon and round mortise" and "square mortise and round tenon") that was originally derived from a line in the Verses of Chu (Chu ci 楚辭), composed in the Warring States period (ended 221 BC), in which the poet Song Yu writes: "圆凿而方枘兮,吾固知其龃龉而难入。" The Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian and Tang Dynasty historian 司馬貞 used the same expression in their historical writings too.[8][9] It is still widely used today to mean two things that don't fit together due to different qualities or characters.

See also[edit]

Square peg in a round hole – not quite the same as the classical attempt at squaring the circle


  1. ^ Wallace, Irving. (1957) The Square Pegs: Some Americans Who Dared to be Different, p. 10.
  2. ^ Smith, Sydney, Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy, Delivered at the Royal Institution, in the Years 1804, 1805, and 1806 (London, 1850), p. 111, quoted in Bell, Alan, Sydney Smith: A Life (Oxford, Oxford UP, 1980), p. 58.
  3. ^ Lytton, Edward Bulwer. (1873). Kenelm Chillingly, His Adventures and Opinions, p. 155.
  4. ^ Scott, Gini Graham. (2005). A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses: Dealing with Bullies, Idiots, Back-stabbers, and Other Managers from Hell, p. 153.
  5. ^ Gold, Dore. "Israel Soldiers On," Time. February 19, 2001.
  6. ^ Square peg in a round hole? Disease management in traditional Medicare. Special Committee on Aging, U.S. Senate, November 4, 2003.
  7. ^ The Economist. (2013). The Economist Explains: How was Hangul invented?
  8. ^ 司馬遷.史記.卷七十四.孟子荀卿傳:「持方枘欲內圜鑿,其能入乎?」
  9. ^ 司馬貞.索隱:「謂戰國之時,仲尼、孟軻以仁義干世主,猶方枘圜鑿然。」