At Sixes and Sevens

When we’re in a state of confusion or things are in disarray, we can say we’re at sixes and sevens. It’s an old catchphrase that is first found in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in around 1374, albeit in a slightly different form: on six and seven.

 Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene.

(Let not this wretched woe gnaw at your heart, But manly set the world on six and seven.)

Earlier variants also replace at with set on or swap and for or. Still, however it’s written, there’s something shambolic about sixes and sevens for some reason.

The widely accepted origin is that the phrase is actually a corruption of the French cinque and six. When gambling with dice, and later playing cards, the numbers used were based on the Old French numbers: ace (which we still use today), deuce, trey, quatre, cinque and sice. Originally, to set all on cinq and sice, being the highest numbers on the die, was to gamble recklessly. After a time, the meaning of the words as numbers was forgotten, encouraged by the fact that cinq was pronounced as ‘sink’, and cinq and sice were reanalysed at six and seven. The idea of ‘carelessly hazarding all one’s chances’ became ‘at odds, in confusion’ by 1785.

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