At sixes and sevens - where truth becomes cloudy

How trivia and coincidence can work together

I recently wrote about the disappointment you feel when you discover that a favourite piece of London trivia isn't true. Peter Watts has mentioned this on his blog too (concerning the claim that Phyllis Pearsall walked every London street to compile the A to Z). And yes, it can be disappointing to see a much-loved ‘fact' come tumbling down. But perhaps help is at hand from our old friend coincidence ...

At sixes and sevens - where truth becomes cloudy

Last year, in the pub after recording an edition of Loose Ends for BBC Radio 4, I got talking with fellow product-plugger Marcus du Sautoy (the clever maths guy off BBC4 - no, I know that doesn't narrow it down much) about the statistics of coincidence. (Admitted, that sounds a bit pseudy, but stick with me.) We came up with lots of examples of incredible occurrences being less improbable than you'd think. Perhaps the best one was my story of seeing the film composer Michael Nyman three times in the space of a few months - on the London Tube, outside an Amsterdam pub and walking down a New York street. Marcus grinned. ‘You're not going to believe this,' he said. ‘But I've just spent a week with Michael Nyman at a conference in Mexico.' Only last week I got another reminder of how small the world can be - on a Piccadilly Line walk, standing outside the Burlington Arcade and about to explain why Paul McCartney is the only person in the world allowed to whistle there, Paul McCartney walked past.

All sorts of factors come into play (for a more detailed look at those you can read this piece I wrote for the Daily Mail - though please excuse the mathematically-inaccurate headline they added to it). But essentially the point is: ‘lots of things are happening all the time, and you only notice them when there's a pattern.' To use the Nyman example: other people cross our path day in day out - over the course of a lifetime there'll be millions of them - so it's no real surprise when one of them happens to do it three times (even when the events are in three different countries). You don't notice all the times there isn't a coincidence, simply because there's nothing to notice. It's like the old thing of someone ringing up just as you were thinking about them. We all think about lots of people every day, and receive several phone calls every day. The amazing thing would be if those two things never coincided.

Coincidence has been a great comfort to me as I've pondered the origins of the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens'. For years I've loved the bit of trivia about it coming from the City of London Livery Companies. In 1515 the first dozen companies decided to rank themselves in order of precedence. Everyone was happy with their place in the pecking order - apart from the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors, who couldn't agree which of them should go at six and which at seven. So they decided to alternate, changing places every year. This is a tradition they continue to this day.

Hence, the theory goes, the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens'. All very pleasing on the trivia-gland - until you learn that Chaucer used the phrase over a century earlier. His Troilus and Criseyde (1374) contains the line ‘Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene.' Particularly annoying to have a favourite fact blown away by a line whose meaning you can't make head nor bloody tail of.

But who says it has been blown away? If, as we all know from own experience, coincidences regularly happen, and (as Marcus explained) supposedly ‘amazing' coincidences are far more likely than we'd think, then who's to say that the Livery Companies/Chaucer thing isn't a coincidence too? Or at the very least that the phrase had joint authors. ‘Sixes and sevens' does seem to have existed before 1515 - but perhaps the Livery Company shenanigans gave it a boost, and sent it into wider usage?

Obviously there are some pieces of trivia that are either true or false. Bob Holness playing the saxophone solo on Baker Street, for instance, or Lawrence Dallaglio singing backing vocals on Tina Turner's We Don't Need Another Hero. (The first one's false, the second true.) But others are harder to pin down - and some will be impossible. Two people can think of the same joke independently of each other - why can't a piece of trivia have two origins?

 

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