At sixes and sevens
Origin and early history
The phrase probably derives from a complicated dice game called "hazard". It is thought that the expression was originally "cinque and sice" (from the French numerals for five and six). These were considered to be the riskiest numbers to shoot for (to "set on"), and those who tried for them were considered careless or confused.
A similar phrase, "to set the world on six and seven", is used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde. It dates from the mid-1380s and seems from its context to mean "to hazard the world" or "to risk one's life". William Shakespeare uses a similar phrase in Richard II, "But time will not permit: all is uneven, And every thing is left at six and seven".
The phrase is also used in Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), where the captain, confused as to what choices to make in his life, exclaims in the opening song of Act II, "Fair moon, to thee I sing, bright regent of the heavens, say, why is everything either at sixes or at sevens?"
It is possible that an ancient dispute between the Merchant Taylors and Skinners livery companies may have helped to popularise the phrase. The two trade associations, founded in the same year, argued over sixth place in the order of precedence. In 1484, after more than a century of bickering, the Lord Mayor of London Sir Robert Billesden decided that at the feast of Corpus Christi, the companies would swap between sixth and seventh place and feast in each other's halls. Nowadays, they alternate in precedence on an annual basis.
The phrase took on additional meaning during the early 1960s, when debate over Britain's position in Europe under Harold Macmillan centred on membership of the EEC 'Six' or the EFTA 'Seven' smaller independent states.
The phrase bears comparison with the Chinese phrase luan qi ba zao (亂七八糟, literally "chaos seven eight bad"), which means messy (which could refer to a messy situation - implying problems, which in turn could possibly include hazard, but hazard is not a necessary element to the Chinese phrase. The phrase could also be literally used to mean a physical mess) but instead uses the numbers seven and eight. Also, it can be compared with the Chilean phrase al tres y al cuatro, with a similar meaning, but using the numbers three and four. In Arabic, the phrase يضرب أخماساً لأسداس (He shows fifths for sixths) is said of a devious person who says one thing but means another, (تاج العروس), which would naturally lead to a state of confusion and of being "at sixes and sevens". A similar expression is used also in Persian where they say شش پنج ("He says five but he means six"). In Russian, the phrase "семь - восемь" means that something isn't done very well, but using the numbers seven and eight.