At Sixes and Sevens

An exciting family event had left me in an agitated state. I had lots of things to do but I just couldn’t focus. I mentioned to a friend that I was ‘at sixes and sevens’. She didn’t know what I meant. I explained that if you were ‘at sixes and sevens’ you were at loose ends, sort of befuddled and confused. Later I found the phrase in the Urban Dictionary. They defined it as a state of disconcertedness or off-kilterness, to be befuttered and betwixed.  I loved the sound of those descriptors!

 I hadn’t realized the idiom ‘at sixes and sevens’ wasn’t familiar to everyone.  I picked up the phrase from my Mom. My friend’s bewilderment about its usage had me curious.  Where did the saying originate?

Chaucer was the first to use the phrase in 1375 in a tragic romantic poem Troilus and Criseyde.  Later in his play Richard II, Shakespeare had the Duke of York say, “ All is uneven and everything is left at six and seven.”

  Long ago the idiom wasn’t considered polite. Francis Grose lists it in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785. He says it refers to a state of confusion, a room with items scattered about or a piece of business that is unsettled. I liked that. It sounds ever so much nicer to say “My house is all at sixes and sevens” rather than “My house is a mess.”

 A ruling by the Lord Mayor of London in 1485 is cited as another origin of the phrase. At the time most tradespeople were organized into guilds and there was an order of precedence. The guilds were assigned a ranking depending on the year they’d been established. The guild of tailors and the guild of fur traders had been at loggerheads for more than a century because they had both been set up in the same year and both laid claim to sixth place on the ranking scale. To put a stop to the dispute the mayor decreed they would alternate between sixth and seventh place in successive years. Unfortunately that didn’t seem to settle things and the two guilds remained permanently at sixes and sevens with each other.  

 I had fun looking for cultural references to ‘sixes and sevens’. I discovered in 2002 a Norwegian symphonic gothic metal band called Sirena released an album called At Sixes and Sevens.  The phrase is the title of a romance novel by Rosie Harris about two British sisters in love with the same man. July of 2013 marked the first performance of Sixes and Sevens a nine- movement cantata. A collaboration between Pulitzer Prize winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon and English composer Mark Anthony Turnage it was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and an Irish orchestra Camerata Ireland.  At Sixes and Sevens is also the name of a 2011 comedic opera that explores the life and work of musical geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan.

There is also a bar in Brisbane, Australia called Sixes and Sevens that serves great wine from wooden barrels and features excellent sticky ribs and fish and chips. One reviewer calls it a delightful eating establishment with gregarious staff and a comfortable ambiance. Just the kind of place to go when you’re feeling at ‘sixes and sevens.’

Other posts about lesser known words and phrases…….

What’s Rubbering? 

A Rhizomatic Sunday


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