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At Sixes and Sevens – Confusion Reigns

Did the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’ originate from English speakers who had dealings with Italians?  There does seem to be some evidence.

The expression to be ‘at sixes and sevens’ is as old as the hills, and even the likes of literary greats such as Shakespeare and Chaucer used versions of this idiom to imply that confusion reigns.

As to the origins of this curious idiom, nobody really knows for sure, although a few theories are espoused over on the ‘at sixes and sevens’ Wikipedia entry, a link to which is provided below.

Well, I’m about to add yet another one to these theories, and propose that interacting with Italians may have led to this curious saying.

sixes or sevens?
sixes or sevens?

What’s Italy got to do with this?  If you keep reading, all will be revealed.

I’ve been teaching English to Italians for many a year, and one thing you notice after having taught for a few years is that different English language students tend to make the very same mistakes.

The Fiendish ‘th’

Some of these errors you can understand.   Indeed, one which affects just about all Italian students of English releates to the devilish ‘th’ combination, which, on top of being a sound which does not exist in Italian (and a few other European languages for that matter), has two separate pronunciations.

That words such as ‘the’ and ‘this’ are some of the most common in the English language simply adds to student stress.  However this post is not about the fiendish ‘th’.  No, it’s about sixes and sevens.  Hence the title.

Simply Weird

For reasons I’ve yet to establish, when I say 7 in English, some Italians will hear, and write, the number 6.  Even if I repeat the number several times, the result is the same.  It’s weird.  I have no idea why. And it happened again today during a numerical dictation –  I said ‘Seven’, but ‘6’ was the number which was written by more than one person.

Perhaps you can explain why, dear reader.  To help you, it might help you to know that in Italian, six is ‘sei’, which is pronounced more or less like ‘say’.  While 6 begins with an ‘s’ in both languages, the sounds are quite different.  No clue there -not for me, anyway.

Seven in Italian is ‘sette’, which is pronounced ‘set-e’ – which is ‘set’ as in ‘set-up’, along with a final ‘e’ which sounds not unlike the first ‘e’ in the word ‘egg’.  Both words begin with the same ‘se’ sound, and there the similarity disintegrates.

To add to the confusion, Italians will often transform the number seventy into sixty.

I’m at sixes and sevens to explain just why this confusion arises, I can tell you.

Just to add some more icing to the confused cake, I now end up confusing six and seven in Italian!  Help!, or ‘aiuto!’, as they say round these parts (For anyone who does not know me, I live in Italy).

A Reason for the Confusion?

Perhaps this six and seven confusion is historical, in that when trading, Italians found differentiating between English sixes and sevens problematic, and English people had the same trouble too.

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For an example, in years past, an English trader may have asked for seven yarns of silk, and ended up with six.  And this may have happened on more than once, and to more than one merchant.

Idiom Created Over a Beer

As a result of the confusion coming up in conversation over doing business with Italians, could it be that someone ages past, quite probably in some smoke-filled dockside tavern, over a glass or two of ale, jokingly coined the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’ to refer to a state of confusion?

I’ve no idea if this is what actually happened, but my own direct experience over the years would appear to provide a vaguely plausible explanation for the origins of the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’.

Incidentally, and in case you were wondering, a direct equivalent of ‘to be at sixes and sevens’ does not exist in Italian.  At least that is what I’ve been told, and I’ve never heard something similar said in Italian.

A number, though, is used in Italian to refer to confusion, but the number is neither six, nor seven.

Sixes and Sevens in English equal Forty-eight in Italian

In Italian, the number which is used to refer to confusion is 48!  ‘fare un quarantotto’ – ‘to do a 48’.  If you know why 48 is used in Italian, then explain in a comment -but please will my esteemed Italian readers not try to provide any explanation for a couple of days or so.  I’d love to know how many non-Italians have heard of ‘Un quarantotto’.  I admit that before writing this, I had not.

UPDATE: 15 January, 2010

Bodach, one of Italy Chronicles’ quick-fingered readers, has already managed to track down what ‘fare un quarantotto’ – ‘to do a 48’ means:

If there’s one thing I find it hard to resist it’s a mystery. So I did some “extensive” research and found references to Carlo Cattaneo, from Milan, who was a leader in the Five Days of Milan (March 18–March 22, 1848) insurrection. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlo_Cattaneo
And according to this thesis on Carlo Cattaneo http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd1869.pdf by Carolyn Bennett Ugolini and this post http://becomingitalianwordbyword.typepad.com/becomingitalian/games/ by Dianne Hayles quarantotto, 48, refers to the failed 1848 insurrection.
So “fare un quarantotto” came to mean creating confusion and disorientation.

Well done, Bodach! Hit the nail on the head, you have.

Hop on over to Bodach’s AboutAbruzzo blog for some tips and other interesting nuggets of information on Italy’s Abruzzo region: AboutAbruzzo by Bodach

I think language is fascinating, which probably explains why I enjoy teaching English and, in case you had not noticed, is why I like writing.

If, after reading this post I have left you at sixes and sevens, I do apologise.

Wikipedia – At sixes and sevens


Un quarantotto – My Italian other half, Cristina.

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