At sixes and sevens

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"At sixes and sevens" is an English idiom used to describe a condition of confusion or disarray.

Origin and early history[edit]

An historic dispute between the Merchant Taylors and Skinners livery companies is the probable origin of the phrase.[1] The two trade associations, both founded in the same year (1327),[2] argued over sixth place in the order of precedence. In 1484, after more than a century and a half of bickering, the Lord Mayor of London Sir Robert Billesden ruled 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.[1][2]

However, the Oxford English Dictionary attributes a later origin: the earliest quoted derivation is there ascribed to Geoffrey Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde (1374). From its context it means "to hazard the world" or "to risk one's life". The work identifies the ultimate origin to be from gambling on the highest values in dicing: to set on cinque and sice (five and six).[3][4]

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 Captain Corcoran, the ship's Commander, is confused as to what choices to make in his life, and 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?"

In P.G.Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), the derivation of the phrase is said to be from the "hearty argot of the hunting field".[5]

The phrase is used by Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in the film Jezebel when he described conditions at the bank of which he was a director.

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 appears in a few songs, including "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from the musical Evita, "Raoul and the Kings of Spain" from Tears for Fears, and "Playing With Fire" by Stereo MCs. The eleventh studio album from Strange Music front man Tech N9ne was entitled "All 6's and 7's". The song "Sixes and Sevens" was co written and sung by Robert Plant. It also appears in the Rolling Stones' song "Tumbling Dice". There is an album by Norwegian gothic metal band Sirenia called At Sixes and Sevens(including a song with the same name) where this phrase is used in several songs.

The phrase is also used in the 1951 movie Royal Wedding. Keenan Wynn’s character says, “I say, what’s the matter with you two this morning? You’re all at 6s and 7s.” It also appears in the 1978 movie The Wiz, when Miss One gives Dorothy the silver slippers and comments, "Oh, don't be all sixes and sevens, honey" to Dorothy as Dorothy is in a state of confusion after killing the Wicked Witch of the East. It is also found in the 1993 film The Remains of the Day. It is also mentioned in the 2002 film Austin Powers in Goldmember by Mike Myers' character Austin Powers to his dad, who at the time were speaking "English English": "oh, the one who was all sixes and sevens?" During the second episode of season five of the HBO series Six Feet Under, George uses the phrase to describe his wife's attitude towards him.

We also come across the phrase in Sabina's opening monologue from Thornton Wilder's 1942 Pulitzer Prize winning play The Skin of Our Teeth: "The whole world's at sixes and sevens, and why the house hasn't fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me."

Similar phrases[edit]

  • The phrase bears comparison with the Chinese phrase luan qi ba zao (乱七八糟/亂七八糟, literally "chaos seven eight rotten"), 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.[6]
  • 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 the related Maltese language, the phrase sitta u sitta, tnax (six and six make twelve) exists, which is an ironic phrase used to describe someone who is aloof and has no idea what is going on.
  • In Russian, the phrase "семь, восемь" (literally, "seven (or) eight") means[citation needed] that something isn't done very well or precisely, so it measures "either seven or eight".


  1. ^ a b "World Wide Words: At sixes and sevens".
  2. ^ a b "The Livery Companies". 4 September 2014.
  3. ^ "Six, 5(a)". Oxford English Dictionary. In phrases with…sixes and sevens
  4. ^ "Troilus and Criseyde - Book 4, Lines 621-623". 12 June 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-06-12.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  5. ^ Chapter 7: "Aunt Dahlia, returning…to the hearty argot of the hunting field"
  6. ^ "Google Translate".

External links[edit]