First, a joke: Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine!
Many idiomatic phrases live on in popular culture long after their origins are forgotten. For example, in the musical, Evita Peron tells Argentina not to cry for her— “she’s dressed up to the nines / At sixes and sevens with you.” What is she talking about?
“Dressed to the nines” means elaborately and expensively dressed. Where did the saying come from? Some think it refers to nine yards of cloth. Others think it’s a perfect score in Scottish ninepins. The best theory I found references the Nine Muses of Art and Literature from classical mythology, all of whom have high standards and are impressed by a gorgeous outfit. Regardless of its origin, it’s a handy phrase to use in a song. Pop stars who mention being dressed “to the nines” include, among many others, Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift.
(“Dressed to the nines” is not to be confused with “the whole nine yards” which has such a lengthy and contested list of possible origins, this writer graphed them.)
The English idiomatic phrase “at sixes and sevens” has fallen out of everyday use in the U.S., but it was once used to describe a state of disorder. One origin of “at sixes and sevens,” might be found in the book of Job in the Christian Bible— “from six calamities he will rescue you; in seven no harm will touch you” —perhaps, like Job, you’ve experienced six and possibly seven catastrophes—the very brink of disaster—and you need a divine intervention.
Interestingly, a Chinese chengyu describing disorder is 乱七八糟, literally, “chaos seven eight mess.” Chengyu are four-character proverbs or sayings which originated in some long-forgotten story or event but have taken on a life of their own. Some say the phrase was first used in an 1894 novel by Zeng Pu to describe a craftsman’s workroom, but this bit of information has been cribbed from one source to another with no attribution. As with many Shakespearean phrases in the US, this chengyu is widely used, but its origins are murky. Chinese readers: does anyone know the context from which the chengyu came?
Finally, we’ll close with a French idiomatic phrase that means one thing in France and another in Canada. Le cinq à sept— “the five to seven”—refers in both countries to the hours between five o’clock and seven o’clock pm. In France, it’s also refers to an illicit rendezvous with someone who is not your spouse after work but before supper; but in Quebec, it’s just happy hour or an afternoon cocktail party— friends innocently getting together after work.
So, in France, if you are dressed to the nines for le cinq à sept, you’ll risk being at sixes and sevens with your spouse and you will come home to chaos seven eight mess. But in Quebec, you’ll just be having a nice time after work, and everything will be aces.
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