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Easier said than understood

We use idioms nearly every day. They give strength or personality to our comments, provide emphasis or give clarity. And it is sometimes engaging to think about an idiom’s origin.

Have you or your grandparent ever claimed to be at sixes and sevens? For about 220 years or so it has meant in a state of disorder or confusion, topsy-turvy. Some say it connects to a Hebrew phrase from Job that speaks of six troubles and “in seven there shall no evil touch thee.” (obvious opposition).

Others explain that the Arabic numerals six and seven are irregular numbers. The idiom’s singular form, on six and seven, was used as early as 1375, in “Troilus and Criseyde” by Chaucer. It then referenced a risky dice game in which carelessness resulted in disorder and confusion. Wow! Such a long tale to describe simple chaos.

While we look at numbers, consider the baker’s dozen, which we know is really 13. No wonder counting is complicated!

This may take us back to King John’s reign, even to the 12th century. Bread, like Swiss cheese, contains air pockets, and some bakers of those remote times did not scruple (cool verb, huh?) to take advantage of that; they were thus suspected of giving customer’s short weight.

In Constantinople as late as the 18th century a baker guilty of selling lightweight bread might be nailed by his ears to the doorpost of his shop.

In 1266, England’s Parliament regulated bread by weight, and short weight penalties were severe. Because accurate weight was difficult and risk of penalty unwanted, bakers usually distributed 13 loaves for every dozen ordered by vendors who marketed the product. The vendor would then cut off a piece of the extra loaf to add to each full loaf bought by a customer. This extra loaf was known as the inbread or vantage loaf. Bakers and dealers had the vantage in obeying the law, and customers were certain of a fair deal.

Let’s stay with consumption. In very recent times, if you heard or read, “gone to pot,” it could have referred to the field, an individual, or a retail store. In recent centuries, this idiom alluded to something ruined or destroyed. In the 16th century, however, it was more literal, actually gone to the pot, chopped into pieces, as in a stew. Or at times it was figurative, perhaps speaking of the person dying having been the victim of a cannibalistic feast. Written of Christians persecuted under Marcus Aurelius, it was said, “All went to the pot without respect of sex, dignity or number.”

Hope this week finds you hitting on all six.

— Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years. If you have grammar questions, email her at ifixgrammar@charter.net