At sixes and sevens
This curious phrase is used to signify that things are in a state of confusion or disorder. It can also be used to indicate that two parties are in dispute or having a disagreement. So how did this phrase evolve and why sixes and sevens?
A variant of our phrase first appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde which was written in 1374. There we find “Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene” which translates into modern English as “Let not this wretched woe gnaw at your heart, But manly set the world on six and seven.” One of the interesting aspects of this phrase is that you can trace its mutation over the centuries from Chaucer’s on six and seven to at six and seven before settling upon the familiar at sixes and sevens.
By the time Shakespeare penned Richard II in around 1595 at six and seven was the normal formulation – its first citation dates to around 1535. The Duke of York remarks in Act 2 Scene 2 remarks, “I should to Plashy too, But time will not permit. All is uneven, And everything is left at six and seven.” Some seventy-five years later the numerals began to appear in the now familiar plural form. In 1670 the bashful G.H “faithfully Englished” Leti’s Il cardinalismo di Santa Chiesa and there we find “they leave things at sixes and sevens.” And our phrase appears in Francis Grose’s invaluable Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785 complete with a definition; “Left at sixes and sevens, in confusion, commonly said of a room where the furniture, etc. is scattered about, or of a business left unsettled.”
As for the significance of the numerals in our phrases, the authoritative sources are (ahem) at sixes and sevens. The Chaucer citation rules out the theory that it relates to a dispute between two London Livery Companies, the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners, over precedence. In 1484 the Lord Mayor, Sir Robert Billesden, ruled that the two companies should alternate between sixth and seventh place on an annual basis, a practice that remains today. Shame, because it is a nice story.
The Chaucer citation could well provide a clue because the sense it conveys is one of reckless behaviour akin to a risky throw of the dice. Dice were commonly used in gambling games in the Middle Ages, particularly in to us the rather obscure and complicated game of Hazard. The numbers on the faces of a die were based on Old French numbers, ace, deuce, trey, quatre, cinq and sice. The riskiest and most reckless bet in Hazard was to go for the high numbers, five and six. We have noted how over the centuries the English have been a bit tin-eared with foreign words and phrases and are past masters of the mondegreen. We are asked to believe that cinq and sice was corrupted and mangled into six and seven, losing along the way its association with gambling. This seems to be good enough for the Oxford English Dictionary but I’m troubled by it.
It may be that we have to say that the real association with six and seven has been lost in the mists of history. But I leave you with a couple of thoughts. The sum of six and seven is thirteen, a notoriously ill-starred number. May this be the origin? Alternatively, it may be a bit of a joke. Most dice have six faces and so to have a die with a seven is the sign of a disorderly gambling establishment. Perhaps it is no more than that.