To be "at sixes and sevens" is a British English idiom used to describe a state of confusion or disarray. The phrase probably derives from a complicated dice game called "hazard". It is thought that the expression was originally "to set on cinq and six" (from the French numerals for five and six). These are the riskiest numbers to shoot for (to "set on"), and anyone who tried for them was considered careless or confused.
The similar phrase "to set the world on six and seven", used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde, dates about the mid 1380's and seems from its context to mean "to hazard the world" or "to risk one's life".
It is possible an ancient dispute between the Merchant Taylors' and Skinners' Livery Companies may have helped to popularise it. The two, which were founded in the same year, argued over sixth place in the order of precedence. After more than a century, in 1484 the then Lord Mayor of London Sir Robert Billesden decided that at the feast of Corpus Christi, the companies would swap between sixth and seventh and feast in each others' halls. Nowadays they alternate in precedence on an annual basis.
Compare this with the Chinese phrase qi shang ba xia (七上八下), with similar meaning, but instead uses the numbers seven and eight. The literal translation is seven on top, eight underneath.
There is another possible origin of this phrase. In the King James version of the Bible, the sixth commandment is "Thou Shalt Not Kill", while the seventh commandment is "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery". However, in the Septuagint version (LXX), the 6th commandment is "Thou shalt not commit adultery", and the seventh commandment is "Thou Shalt Not Steal". Thus a controversy existed over these commandments.
Famous quotes containing the word sevens:
how they trace
across the very-marble
of this place,
bright sevens and printed fours,
elevens and careful eights....”
—Hilda Doolittle (18861961)