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shameless pleading

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).

12 comments to Sixes and sevens

  • David Bovee

    Grand Guy Grand and his aunts, in Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, maintain that the expression refers to craps: you come out on your point (in this case six) and then throw a seven, in which case you lose. “What gives the expression bite,” says Grand, “is that six is usually an easy point to make….”

    This reference from memory–I may have it wrong.

  • Mike Byrne

    Surely more likely to be from the early days of east meets west. The figure for 6 used in arabic cultures and the one we use for 7 are such that in the early days when the cultures mixed and one of those figures was written alone it must have been difficult to decide which it was meant to be. Just my theory.

    • Mike Wilson

      Mike, I agree

      Yours is the most logical reference with the base of East and West confusion — lost in translation.
      Wars have been started on less.
      I have been told all my life that 6′s and 7′s means — “I don’t know whether I am coming or going with you” and is easier said “I’m at 6′s and 7′s”.

      The confusion that derives from the ambiguity of similar script form could well have spawned been anchored to…….the 6 and the 7.

      Thanx

  • Ivan Finkle

    I believe “all sixes and sevens” derives from golf. Most golf holes have as par four, some five. When a golfer is all sixes and sevens he’s not making any pars, but bogies (1 over par) and double bogies (2 over par). In other words he’s having a lousy day.

  • Jon Camilleri

    In my opinion it more likely to be from the game of Cribbage … if you are all 6′s and 7′s in cribbage you are truly in a dilemma as to which card to throw into the crib … and at a huge disadvantage for the game … unless you are the dealer (as seen in the attache dsolutions to what to do if you are BOTH all sixes and sevens.

  • MrHistoricallyInaccurate

    Craps, Cribbage and Golf are all outdated by Chaucers reference. The East meets West may have a little validity but the middle east was still in turmoil after the crusades during Chaucers time. I’d say the cinque and cice would hold the most validity as English was the second language of England during this period. The primary (official) language was bastardised French as spoken by the nobility.

  • Gary

    It may have been a game of dice game that the phrase, ’6′s and 7′s was originally termed. But, it good that it is re-termed through the ages. I was when I was in a rehab on a 12 step programme for alcoholism, when I was on steps 6/7, look at our behavioural defects, that I was led to believe that’s where the phrase comes from. It was a set up and I told the full rehab of my findings. Until that time, I was always at 6′s and 7′s. Five years on and I have not had an alcoholic drink. 6′s and 7′s worked for me.

  • Gary

    Ha! Looking at my grammatical errors above, I believe I’m still at 6′s and 7′s?

  • Don

    As a mathematician I feel that, apart from historical considerations, the phrase still works for me because six and seven are incompatible, I.e. have no common factor. Of course, five and six also works.

  • Vivienne Vine

    I understood it (and was double checking) to be number of barges following the King’s Barge … they couldn’t make up their minds which of six and seven was more impoortant, so it was decided that first 6 went first in the order of things, then 7. I am not sure what these barges carried but if you could find out what all of them carried, we would be nearer the answer to this one.

  • [...] you enjoy it, or does it leave you all sixes and sevens, which I’m feeling myself these [...]

  • [...] playing a dice game called Hazard, where betting on rolling a 5 and a 6 was thought a risky move; the phrase gradually morphed to involve 6 and 7 instead–a pairing not possible through rolling dice (so clearly the riskiest bet of all). Betting on [...]

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