Posted by Bruce Kahl on May 29, 2000
In Reply to: "...at sixes and sevens." posted by Brooke on May 28, 2000
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.