Although the number seven might be considered lucky, today’s episode is all about the number six. Here are six common phrases that include the word “six.”
Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other
If it’s all the same to you, let’s start with “six of one, half a dozen of the other.” As you might have guessed, you use this phrase when the two alternatives you have are the same, and so the choices are about equal. You might also hear the phrase reversed: “half a dozen of one, six of the other.” These two alternatives are the same because half a dozen is the same as six. This phrase was first used in 1836 by Frederick Marryat in a piece of nautical fiction called “The Pirate and the Three Cutters.” (1)
At Sixes and Sevens
The second phrase that uses the number six is “at sixes and sevens,” which means “in confusion,” “in disagreement,” or “in disorder.” A parent of a messy child will probably at some point say something like, “Sam’s bedroom is at sixes and sevens,” especially if that parent speaks British English, in which the phrase is more common.
It appears that Chaucer first used the original version of the phrase (“set on six and seven”) in “The Canterbury Tales” around 1374. According to dictionary.com, back then, those who gambled with dice tried to roll the highest numbers possible: five and six. In Middle English, spoken at this time, the French names for these numbers, “cinque” and “sice,” were often used, and it’s possible the phrase is a corruption of “on cinque and sice,” from people who didn’t know French thinking “cinque and sice” sounded like “six and seven.” The phrase originally meant “to risk your entire fortune” because gamblers would risk a lot of money hoping to roll these numbers. Over the centuries, the meaning of the phrase “at sixes and sevens” has changed. The phrase described someone who was confused enough to make a risky bet, and then it came to mean in disagreement or in disorder. Now, go clean your room, please.
The third phrase that uses the word “six” also has its origins with vice, this time alcohol. To eighty-six something means to discard or reject it, and bartenders in the 1930s would call a person they wouldn’t serve more liquor to an “eighty-six.” At lunch counters at the time, an “eighty-six” was also a menu item that wasn’t available. Lexicographers believe it probably originated as rhyming slang for the word “nix,” which means “to refuse to agree to something” or “to prohibit.”
These days, the phrase is commonly used as a verb, as in “I had to eighty-six the leftover potato salad because it sat out too long at the picnic.” If you write this phrase, don’t forget to include the hyphen between “eighty” and “six.”
Deep-Six and Six Feet Under
Things are now going from bad to worse: first, gambling and then alcohol. Now it’s time to discuss death as we explore two phrases that have their origins in burials. First up is “deep-six,” which like “eighty-six” has a hyphen in the middle. “To deep-six” is another way to say “to discard,” “to throw overboard,” or “to get rid of.” You can eighty-six old potato salad, or you can deep-six it. Dictionary.com states that the phrase first appeared in the 1940s or ’50s and that it comes from the traditional depth of graves: six feet.
The other burial-related phrase is “six feet under,” which means, simply, “dead.” You might hear someone say, “You’ll see what’s in my will when I’m six feet under.” Like “deep-six,” the phrase “six feet under” originated in the middle of the 20th century. Burying bodies six feet underground seems to have been a burial practice that originated in England in 1665. In reaction to a breakout of plague at that time, the mayor of London tried to limit the spread of the disease by “requiring graves to be at least six feet deep in an attempt to limit the spread of disease.” This practice was not very effective. Coincidentally, six feet is also the approximate length of a coffin.
Watch Your Six
The sixth and final phrase involving the number six has many variations, including “watch your six,” “check your six,” and “get your six.” You might say something like, “My partner has got my six.” As you might have guessed, this is police or military slang. In this case, the word “six” is a noun that means “back.” If someone has your back, or your six, that person is watching out for you and protecting you. The phrase has an interesting history from the Air Force. Pilots describe directions by using an imaginary clock, with 12:00 being dead ahead and 6:00 being behind, so to pilots, 6:00 is their back. Civilians might do something similar, as in “Look at the guy at 3:00,” which encourages you to look at someone ahead and to your right.
And with that, the six phrases using the number six are now behind us.
1. Funk, Charles Earle. “Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings.” New York: HarperPerennial, 1993, p. 179.
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