Posted by Bruce Kahl on February 10, 2002
In Reply to: 6s and 7s posted by ESC on February 10, 2002
: : Does anyone know the origin of the phrase, to be at sixes and (or) at sevens?
: From the archives:
: Source: "Hog on Ice" by Charles Earle Funk: (paraphrased). The expression is believed to be 150 years old at least (this written in 1948). An older form, "on six and seven," was known in Chaucer's day and he used it in 1375 in "Troylus and Cryseyde." But he didn't explain it. Mr. Funk thinks Chaucer's use referred to an old dicing game. From Chaucer and other sources, we know there was a game where to try a throw of six and seven was a very risky gamble. One who staked his win on such a throw was reckless in the extreme.
It's one of the more ancient expressions in the language, being recorded in the fourteenth century. There are various theories about its origin, but the most probable is that it arose out of an old game of dice called hazard, one in which one's chances of winning were complicated by a set of rather arbitrary rules.
It is thought that the expression was originally to set on cinque and sice (from the French numerals, "five" and "six"). These were apparently the most risky numbers to shoot for ("to set on") and anyone who tried for them was considered careless or confused. Later, the number words shifted to their modern values, perhaps because the link with the game (and the original French words) had by then been severed, or perhaps it was a joke, as seven is an impossible number to throw with one die. The change may also be linked to the sum of the new numbers being thirteen, always considered unlucky. Its modern sense is simply "to be confused".
Incidentally, our word hazard came into the language first to refer to the dice game (via the Old French hasard and the Spanish azar from the Arabic az-zahr "luck, chance"), and only later took on the meaning of a danger or risk, or as a verb, to venture something.