Sixes and sevens

Catching up with Marge and Tina.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the term “I’m all sixes and sevens” come from, and what exactly does it mean? — Dean Harris.

It means that times flies, or, as Groucho Marx once put it, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”  It seems like only yesterday, or maybe last year, five years tops, that I first answered this question, but it was actually way back in 1996.  Wow. That was when today was the distant future (the 21st century!), when we didn’t yet have 3-D TV, nobody had iPhone implants, and we still thought that flying cars might be a good idea.  Back when Madonna was a star.

I mention Madonna because she supplied the impetus for a small tidal wave of questions I received back then about “sixes and sevens.”  I was initially puzzled by the sudden interest in a phrase which had, after all, been snoozing in the dusty corners of our English vernacular since at least the late 14th century.   But a quick check of the then-primitive internet indicated that a film adaptation of the musical “Evita” that year, starring Madonna, had produced the wildly popular song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which contained the magic phrase “sixes and sevens” (“You won’t believe me, All you will see is a girl you once knew, Although she’s dressed up to the nines, At sixes and sevens with you”).

“Sixes and sevens” as we use it today actually has two related but distinct meanings.  When we say “I’m all sixes and sevens” or the like, it means that we are confused, disoriented and uncertain, either in general or in regard to a specific problem.  “Sixes and sevens” also describes a general state of confusion and disarray in something, such as a business, that ought to be orderly (“The affairs of the treasurer … are all at sixes and sevens,” 1809).  But “sixes and sevens” can also mean a state of irreconcilable conflict, usually preceded by “at” (“Bob and Bill were best friends, but the arrival of Mary set them at sixes and sevens for the whole summer”).

There are a number of colorful stories about the origin of “sixes and sevens,” tracing the phrase to medieval guilds and Biblical quotations, but, as usual with colorful word and phrase origin stories, they fall apart on examination.  Fortunately, the explanation most likely to be true is also pretty colorful.

A popular game of chance during the Middle Ages in Europe was called “Hazard,” and involved, as many games still do, betting on the outcome of a roll of a pair of dice.  A daring player might bet on the unlikely roll of five and six, known as “setting on cinque and cice” (from the French words for five and six).  This was considered a very foolish move, because the player’s entire fortune could be lost on one toss.  Over time, the phrase came to mean “to take a great risk” in other contexts, and “cinque and cice” became “six and seven” (a roll impossible with dice, by the way).   Chaucer, among other authors, used the phrase in this “risk everything” sense in the late 14th century.

By the 16th century, “at six and seven” had taken on the meaning of “in great confusion,” as Shakespeare used it in his Richard II (“But time will not permit. All is uneven, And everything is left at six and seven”).  By the 18th century, the plural form “sixes and sevens” had become standard, and by the late 1800s the phrase was also being used to mean “in stubborn disagreement” (“[These] differences … have for a long time kept society in Sofia at sixes and sevens,” 1887).

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