Vol. XXXI No. 9 — September 1953

The Oblong Square

One of the minor curiosities of Freemasonry in the United States is the different conception held by those who have charge of the ritual as to what is secret and what is exoteric.

In the Monitors of some jurisdictions, under “the form of a lodge” the paragraphs that follow are represented by stars — the “form of a lodge” is secret. In others the ritual is printed and the curious may learn that “the form of a lodge is that of an oblong square.”

The indispensable Albert Mackey, in his Symbolism of Freemasonry says of this: “The form of a Masonic lodge is said to be a parallelogram, or oblong square; its greatest length being from east to west, its breadth from north to south. A square, a circle, a triangle, or any other form but that of an oblong square, would be eminently incorrect and un-Masonic, because such a figure would not be an expression of the symbolic idea that is intended to be conveyed.

At the Solomonic era — the era of the building of the temple at Jerusalem — the world, it must be remembered, was supposed to have that very oblong form, which has been here symbolized. If, for instance, on a map of the world we should inscribe an oblong figure whose boundary lines would circumscribe and include just that portion that was known to be inhabited in the days of Solomon, these lines, running a short distance north and south of the Mediterranean Sea, and extending from Spain in the west to Asia Minor in the east, would form an oblong square, including the southern shore of Europe, the northern shore of Africa, and the western district of Asia, the length of the parallelogram being about sixty degrees from east to west, and its breadth being about twenty degrees from north to south.

This oblong square, thus enclosing the whole of what was then supposed to be the habitable globe, would precisely represent what is symbolically said to be the form of the lodge, while the Pillars of Hercules in the west, on each side of the straits of Gades or Gibraltar, might appropriately be referred to the two pillars that stood at the porch of the temple.

For many years a curious little controversy has raged between those who see nothing wrong with the “oblong square” and those who regard it as a contradiction in terms, as such expressions as a “square circle” or a “round square.”

To some a square is a square and an oblong is an oblong, just as a circle is a circle and a triangle has three sides; to these, “oblong square” is nonsense.

To those who defend the expression (and they seem to have the better of the argument) the word “square” as moderns use it was once “perfect square,” and “oblong square” was the term used to describe a figure with square corners but with two dimensions long and two short.

There are many words, formed of two words, which mean something quite different from the meaning of the words individually. Pussy, for instance, is a cat. Foot is that upon which man and beast walk. But pussyfoot means neither cat nor member, but the process of being silent, secretive, concealing.

Lounge is an article of furniture, a room for recreation, a position of the body. Lizard is a reptile. But lounge lizard is a man or woman who spends time in cocktail parlors, doesn’t work, drinks too much, is rather beneath the regard of more practical minded humans.

Hay is dried grass. Seed is that from which plants grow, yet hayseed in contemptuous reference, means an unsophisticated man from the country.

Bell is a metal object that makes a sound when struck. Hop is to progress on one foot. Bellhop is a baggage carrier in a hotel! Oblong square is not necessarily a contradiction in terms, but a joining of two words to mean something different from both. A parallelogram is oblong in shape if two sides are longer than another two sides. A square is not only a figure with four equal sides, each of which is at right angles to the other, but is also the name of a whole city block, the intersection of two streets, a glazier’s term indicating a pane of glass, a drafting instrument, a carpenter’s tool (with one long, one short leg), the familiar Masonic square, a tool with two equal sides, an expression meaning correct, honest, a nautical term indicating position of yards on a mast and so on for a dozen definitions, all of the same word.

There are those who contend that the carpenter’s square, which has one long and one shorter member was once known as the oblong square while the tool with two equal sides, at right angles to each other, was known as the perfect square. According to these students, the term was gradually transferred to the figure of a square (as we know it) called perfect square and the figure that, while all right-angled is longer than it is broad (our oblong) then known as the oblong square.

A curious little controversy indeed, which becomes more interesting as it is further developed.

Consider the word right. A square is a right angle. Is there, then, some figure that has a wrong angle?

The word right comes from old Anglo-Saxon riht, reht, meaning straight, just; it is probably descended from the Latin rectus, and has also come to moderns through the German recht. From such words we have direct and erect, the former meaning the quickest way, the most right way; the latter meaning at right angles to the plane beneath. When an Entered Apprentice stands erect he leans neither forward nor back, to one side or the other — he is four square to the floor on which he stands.

A right angle then, is one that has no deviation from perpendicularity. It leans neither forward nor back, nor from side to side. It is “the angle of a square.”

But it is also “the angle of an oblong” since the common or usual figure so denominated also has four right angles.

Words mean what they do mean by the common consent of the people who use them. As people die and others take their places, word usage changes with the years. The English of Chaucer cannot easily be read by even a well-educated man of today, yet it was perfectly good language when Chaucer wrote. Few can read the Regius Poem (Freemasonry’s oldest document) who are not thoroughly familiar with the language of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Britain.

Hence if we find the words oblong square in an older time, we have every right to believe that it means what it expressed then, that the term is not a misnomer, and that it has its place in a ritual that brings us many forgotten expressions of the days that come not back — for instance, profane not meaning, as we have it, taking the name of God in vain, but “without the temple, uninitiated,” and libertine not, as with us, meaning one sexually promiscuous, but a free-thinker, a libertarian in common beliefs.

Sir Walter Scott used the expression oblong square in Ivanhoe, to describe “a space a quarter of a mile in length and about half as broad.” Would he have used the words oblong square to describe his field, if they were not in common use in his time?

In a lodge ritual of the eighteenth century is found “the form of a lodge is a long square.” Other contemporary rituals use oblong square. Curiously enough, there was no controversy between the Ancients and the Moderns (the two English grand lodges that in 1813 formed the United Grand Lodge of England, Mother Grand Lodge to all the world) as to oblong square. Both used it.

“The master’s carpet” survives in the chart of emblems with which the lectures of the three degrees are illustrated, or in the lantern slides projected upon a screen for the same purpose. Originally the “master's carpet” was the floor of the lodge, on which symbols were drawn with chalk, charcoal, or clay and erased afterwards by the newly-initiated brother who was thus taught that secrecy was important.

This "drawing of the lodge” was described as “the oblong square” (rituals of 1740, 1760 and 1767). These drawings were made with steps at the west end, called the Entered Apprentice’s step, the Fellowcraft’s step and the master’s step.

The late great Charles Clyde Hunt, noted Masonic student, researcher, honorary past grand master and grand secretary and librarian of the Iowa Grand Lodge Library, states that the expression “oblong square” was given in Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1765. He also calls attention to a quotation from the Bible (1 Kings 7:5) “All the doors and posts were square with the windows” in which the word square obviously means rectangular (an oblong).

In 1819 a M. S. P. Hildredth of Marietta, Ohio, stated in a letter “On the outside of the parapet, near the oblong square, I picked up a considerable number of fragments of ancient potters’ ware.”

Oblong as a word comes from the Latin ob, meaning off, or before (as in ob-literate, to rub off, make as before, that which was written) and longus, meaning long. The original meaning was “longer than broad” and had no reference whatever to the angles; any rectangle, any parallelogram was oblong. Even today we use the word to define shape without reference to angles, as for instance “the oblong leaf of a tree” as against a leaf that is roughly “circular” or roughly “triangular” or roughly “square.”

The word “square” comes from Latin ex meaning from, out of, and quadrus, meaning the fourth of a circle. A square is thus “out of a fourth part of a circle.”

The ritual tinkerers, alas, we have always with us! They are invariably brethren with the highest principles and the most honest of intentions; no one tries to make the ritual "nearer to the heart’s desire” who does not love it. But, alas, and again alas, too often in the past some “custodians of the work” (and, tell it not in Gath nor in the streets of Askalon) sometimes today, are brethren with no knowledge of where their own grand lodge obtained it! The result has been (and is too often now) that good intentions without knowledge do harm to that which should be sacred just because it is old.

Recently three custodians of the work in a grand lodge, nameless here, tried to "improve” their ritual. All three were elderly men of long experience. All three were eminent, beloved and devoted past grand masters. And none of the three had ever been a Masonic student or knew anything about Masonic history!

They debated a change in the spelling and the pronunciation of the word hele. That heel or heal has nothing to do with the meaning of the Masonic hele did not trouble them — heal or heel just wasn’t spelled hele any more! And it never occurred to them that hele (meaning conceal) and rightly pronounced hail was sacred because it was old and venerable and came to us as a touch with the days of yore. It was not until a Masonic student was invited to speak (and he spoke up and (howl!) that their eyes were opened to the enormity of that which they proposed. The three let the word and its spelling alone.

The ritual tinkerers have succeeded in getting rid of oblong square in a number of rituals, where the curious will now find only the word oblong. They defend their acts by the statement, correct today, not true of an older day, that a square cannot be an oblong.

But in so doing they have made one more modernization of ancient language; one more change in an old, old ritual; one more severing of the ties of the beautiful “long ago and far away.”

Will attempts be made to change “so mote it be” to “so may it be” by some who will quote the change from “in my father’s house are many mansions” to “in my father’s house are many rooms” as a good precedent.

Will the objectors to oblong square soon propose a change of tiler to door keeper, eavesdropper to listener, cowan to uninstructed Mason, profane to non-Ma- son, Amen to that is all, holden to held, “near the Grand Lodge of” to “at (or for) the Grand Lodge of,” “Great Light” to illumination, Grand Master to President, and Worshipful to greatly respected?

A curious little controversy — this oblong square matter. But is it really curious?

The Masonic Service Association of North America