Understanding the Idiom: "at sixes and sevens" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: Unknown, though it may have originated from the game of hazard and the Old French cinc (“five”) and sis (“six”), the riskiest numbers to shoot for, which were misheard and folk-etymologized into English as "six" and "seven".

The Origin of “at sixes and sevens”

The exact origin of this phrase is unclear, but it is believed to have originated in medieval times. It was used to describe a state of confusion or disorder, particularly when referring to a group or organization. The phrase likely comes from the game of dice, where rolling a six or seven would result in losing your turn.

Understanding the Meaning

Today, “at sixes and sevens” is commonly used to describe a situation that is chaotic or disorganized. It can also refer to someone who is unsure about what they want or how they feel. For example, if someone says they are feeling “at sixes and sevens”, it means they are feeling confused or uncertain.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “at sixes and sevens”

The idiom “at sixes and sevens” is a popular expression in the English language that has been used for centuries. It is often used to describe a state of confusion or disorder, where things are not going according to plan. The origins of this phrase can be traced back to medieval times when it was first used by guilds in England.

Guilds were associations of craftsmen who worked together to protect their interests and maintain high standards in their trade. They would meet regularly to discuss business matters and make important decisions. During these meetings, they would draw lots or cast dice to determine the order in which members would speak or vote on issues. This process was known as “casting lots” or “drawing straws.”

However, sometimes members would cheat by using loaded dice or manipulating the outcome of the draw. This led to disputes and disagreements among members, causing chaos and confusion during meetings. To describe this state of disorder, guild members began using the phrase “at sixes and sevens,” which referred to the numbers six and seven being out of order.

Over time, this expression became more widely used outside of guilds and entered into everyday language as a way of describing any situation that was chaotic or disorganized. Today, it remains a popular idiom that is still commonly used in both formal and informal settings.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom

The idiom “at sixes and sevens” is a commonly used phrase that expresses confusion or disarray. While the origin of this phrase is unclear, it has been in use for centuries and has evolved to include various variations across different cultures.

Variations in Meaning

  • In British English, “at sixes and sevens” refers to a state of disorder or chaos.
  • In American English, the phrase can also mean being undecided or uncertain about something.
  • In French, the equivalent expression is “être dans tous ses états,” which translates to “to be in all one’s states.”
  • In German, the phrase “alles durcheinander bringen” means to bring everything into disorder.

Usage Examples

The idiom can be used in various contexts such as:

  1. Situation: A person’s messy room.

    Usage: My sister’s room is always at sixes and sevens. I can never find anything in there!
  2. Situation: A group trying to make a decision.

    Usage: The committee was at sixes and sevens about which proposal to choose.
  3. Situation: A person feeling overwhelmed with tasks.

    Usage: After my vacation, I came back to work feeling at sixes and sevens with all the assignments piled up on my desk.

The usage examples show how versatile this idiom can be when expressing confusion or disarray. It is a useful phrase to have in one’s vocabulary, especially when trying to convey a sense of disorder or chaos.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “at sixes and sevens”


Some common synonyms for “at sixes and sevens” include:

  • Disorganized
  • Chaotic
  • Muddled
  • Jumbled
  • In disarray
  • In confusion

Using these synonyms instead of “at sixes and sevens” can add variety to your language use while still conveying the same idea.


The opposite of being “at sixes and sevens” is being organized. Some antonyms include:

  • Tidy
  • Systematic
  • Cleaned up
  • Neat
  • Ordered
  • Structured

This contrast between opposites helps us to understand what it means to be “at sixes and sevens” by highlighting its polar opposite.

Cultural Insights:“At Sixes And Sevens” is an English idiom with roots dating back centuries. It originated from a dice game called Hazard where rolling a 6 or 7 was considered risky because they were the hardest numbers to roll. This resulted in the phrase “to set upon sixes and sevens” meaning to take a risk or gamble. Over time, the phrase evolved to mean being disorganized or confused.

Understanding these cultural insights can help you appreciate how idioms come about and why they are used in certain contexts.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “at sixes and sevens”

In order to truly understand and use the idiom “at sixes and sevens” in everyday conversation, it is important to practice using it in various contexts. The following exercises will help you become more comfortable with this idiomatic expression.

Exercise 1: Write a short story or dialogue using the idiom “at sixes and sevens”. Try to incorporate the phrase into your writing naturally, without forcing it.

Exercise 2: Watch a movie or TV show and listen for instances where characters use the idiom “at sixes and sevens”. Take note of how they use it in context.

Example: “I’m sorry I’m at sixes and sevens today, I just can’t seem to focus.”

Exercise 3: Practice explaining the meaning of “at sixes and sevens” to someone else. Use examples from your own life or from popular culture.

By practicing these exercises, you’ll be able to confidently use the idiom “at sixes and sevens” in any situation. Remember that idioms are an important part of English language learning, so don’t be afraid to try new phrases out!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “at sixes and sevens”

When using idioms in everyday conversation, it is important to understand their meanings and usage. The idiom “at sixes and sevens” can be confusing for non-native English speakers or those unfamiliar with its origins. However, even native speakers can make mistakes when using this idiom.

One common mistake is using the idiom incorrectly in a sentence. For example, saying “I’m at sixes and sevens about what to wear today” may sound correct, but it actually means that you are confused or disorganized about something specific. The correct usage of the idiom would be “The office was at sixes and sevens after the power outage disrupted our work.” In this context, it means that everything was chaotic or disordered.

Another mistake is overusing the idiom in conversation. While idioms can add color and personality to speech, using them too frequently can become tiresome for listeners. It’s best to use idioms sparingly and only when appropriate.

A third mistake is assuming that everyone understands the meaning of an idiom. Just because an expression is familiar to you doesn’t mean it will be understood by others who speak English as a second language or come from different regions where idiomatic expressions may vary.


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