The Grammarphobia Blog

At sixes and sevens

Q: I heard you on WNYC when you were discussing the origin of the expression “at sixes and sevens.” I believe that it’s a reference to dice and that it comes from the phrase “at six and seven” in Cadenus and Vanessa, an early 18th-century poem by Swift.

A: You’re probably right about the dice, but the expression didn’t originate with Swift. The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Troilus and Cresyda, a 14th-century poem by Chaucer that mentions setting the world “on six and seven” (or as Chaucer put it, “on sexe and seuene”).

The original expression was “based on the language of dicing,” according to the OED, and initially meant risking one’s whole fortune or acting rashly without considering the consequences. It now means in a state of confusion or disorder, according to the entry for “six” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Phrase-aholics have uncovered several other possible sources. One involves this excerpt from the Book of Job: “He shall deliver thee in six troubles; yea, in seven shall no evil touch thee.” Another involves a dispute between two trading companies in London during the 15th century. For more, see the “at sixes and sevens” entry on Michael Quinion’s website, World Wide Words.

As for me, I’ll stick with the OED’s explanation, but I won’t bet my fortune on it.