Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Word Wonder -- at sixes and sevens

Tuesday, January 27, 2010

I am at sixes and sevens as to the precise origin of this expression, because people who make a living figuring out such stuff aren't even sure. But I can certainly tell you what it means. Being at sixes and sevens means a person or situation is in a state of confusion or uncertainty. I can also tell you that it has been in use since before 1375. But more about that in a minute.

Three theories exist for this ancient expression: the Bible, the guilds, and a game. The least likely of the three arises from the story of a dispute between two guilds in the old City of London. Guilds were a sort of blend of today's unions, cartels, and secret societies. Formed to protect their members' interests, they were rated in terms of political power, access to markets, quality of work, and favour with monarchs or city officials. This competition made a guild's standing crucial. It seems that in 1484, the Tailors Guild and the Skinners Guild were vying for position at the level of sixth and seventh places. To settle the problem, the Lord Mayor pulled a King Solomon trick and decreed that henceforth the two guilds would alternate positions each year.

The trouble with this engaging story is that way back in 1375, over a hundred years before the guilds' dispute, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the words "to set the world on six and seven" in Troilus and Criseyde. From its context, Chaucer means "to hazard the world" or "to risk one's life." Other writers in the following century also used the term. So although the citizens of 1484-London might have popularized the expression by poking fun at the pun-worthy situation with the tailors and the skinners, the guildish disagreement could not have given birth to the expression.

Another possibility for the expression's origin is the Bible. Some have wondered if it came from Job 5:19 where Job's friend, Eliphas the Temanite, sat with Job to mourn with him and comfort him in his extreme troubles. Eliphas encouraged Job to trust in the greatness of God, saying, "For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole. He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee." The consensus among numerous sources is that this conversation is not the source of "at sixes and sevens" because the meaning is not the same; Job was mourning, not confused.

So, the likely winner is...the game. A pre-Chaucer French dice game called "hazard" was loaded with complicated rules. One requirement was for players to "set on" certain combinations when they rolled the dice. According to the rules, if a player "set on sinque and cise (five and six)," he was deemed to be very careless or confused. It seems that over time some non-French speakers learned the game and misheard the numbers. They thought they heard "six and seven," based on the way "cinque and cise" sounded to their English ears.

Because there is no single die with seven dots, this may have reinforced the concept of being confused and careless for daring to set on the riskiest roll of the dice -- almost like setting on an impossible six and seven. In addition, since six and seven add up to thirteen, this unlucky number would compound the judgment of that player's being a greatly confused person. In time, the expression changed to "stand on six and seven" and "to be left at six and seven." Still further on, the words were pluralized, bringing us to today's "at sixes and sevens" -- the state of feeling confused and uncertain about a situation or decision.

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