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The meaning and origin of the expression: Six ways to Sunday

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Six ways to Sunday

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Six ways to Sunday'?

The American expression 'Six ways to Sunday' is used with more than one meaning. Most people use it to mean 'in every possible way, with every alternative examined', as in "we checked him out six ways to Sunday before offering him that big loan". Others mean 'in every possible direction', as in "my necklace broke and the beads went six ways to Sunday".

There is a majority view favouring the 'all possible alternatives examined' meaning.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Six ways to Sunday'?

The phrase 'Six ways to Sunday' - meanings and origin.There can hardly be a more archetypically American an expression as 'Six ways to Sunday'. Outside the USA almost no one knows what it means and, as a mere Englishman, I hesitated to start researching it.

Even in the USA there isn't total agreement. People I asked there about 'six ways to Sunday' struggled to define it or agree on what it means.

That confusion can't be helped by the many variants this phrase is found in. The number of ways involved and whether it is to or from Sunday isn't fixed.

We can find the same idiom expressed as '2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 or even a thousand ways to Sunday'. As well as the numbers of ways we can also find 'different', 'both' and 'many'. Not content with that the 'to' is also often listed as 'from' or 'for'.

That's 39 variants, all found in print in US newspapers, and there are others. That's quite appropriate given the 'many alternatives' meaning of the phrase. I know of no other expression that has so many variants which are all understood to be the same phrase.

Google's Ngrams viewer lists the number of times expressions have appeared in print and ranks the different forms of the phrase in this order:

Six ways to Sunday
Seven...
Ten...
Three...
Eight...
Nine...

The 'six ways to Sunday' version is the one most used now, although that's not the phrase as it was originally formed.

As to when and where that origination took place, there are opinions online that it was coined in the mid-18th century. That may be the case but the earliest versions of the expression that I can find come from the 19th century.

The earliest I have found is from American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, July 1832:

"[The horse] Nullifier, led to the post by a small dry looking man, with a hat that stands nine ways for Sunday, and whose antagonists quake at the sight of that old slouched beaver, as do the Bourbons still at the cocked hat of Napoleon."

Another citation from the same year, the US author James Kirke Paulding's novel Westward Ho!:

He chuckled forth an odd dry laugh, and pointing to his trousers, exclaimed ... "Look!; they were stitched with a compass that pointed nine ways from Sunday".

So, it wasn't first six ways but nine and not 'to' but 'for' or 'from'. It isn't clear whether those people who used different forms of the phrase meant different things by it, but it seems likely they didn't.

The 'for' form of the phrase was the most common until the mid 20th century. It was superseded by the 'from' and 'to' forms in the 1960s and the 'to' form is most common today.

The first example the current favourite 'six ways to Sunday' that I know of is in The Chicago Tribune, November 1925:

If you were a lawyer you could say that six ways to Sunday, but it would all come to the same thing.

So, many versions to choose from and, in the USA at least, you could substitute virtually any variables in the formula "X ways Y Sunday" and be understood. Outside the USA will get blank looks whichever you opt for.