Q From Martin Schell: I’m unsure of the origin of six ways from Sunday, but generally it expresses completeness. Could it refer to patterns of activity during a week, from one Sunday to the next?
A You’re not alone in feeling unsure of the origin; you are in the company of almost everybody who has looked at it. Others have made this suggestion for its origin. One specific and quite certainly false tale lists punishments that were once meted out on the six days following a Sunday to a person who failed to attend church.
The big problem with this derivation is that the expression has appeared in many forms down the years, such as four different ways from Sunday, eight ways from Tuesday, forty ways till Sunday, and a thousand ways for Sunday. The common factor is a day of the week and ways, with the number and preposition variable at will.
The key to its origin lies in this early slang collection, which was pointed out to me by Douglas Wilson:
SQUINT-A-PIPES. A squinting man or woman; said to be born in the middle of the week, and looking both ways for Sunday; or born in a hackney coach, and looking out of both windows; fit for a cook, one eye in the pot, and the other up the chimney; looking nine ways at once.
Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Captain Francis Grose, 1785.
The two ways for Sunday version is known from 1770 and looking nine ways, apparently in the same sense, can be traced back to 1622:
“Oh those fair star-like eyes of thine!” one says,
When to my thinking, she hath look’d nine ways;
“And that sweet breath,” when I think (out upon’t!)
’Twould blast a flower if she breathed on’t.
A Satire, Of the Passion of Love, by George Wither, 1622.
This is an early American version:
The brow projected exuberantly, though not heavily, over a pair of rascally little cross-firing twinkling eyes, that, as the country people said, looked at least nine ways from Sunday.
Cobus Yerks, a short story by James Kirke Paulding, in The Atlantic Souvenir for Christmas 1828.
It would seem that Paulding employed an amalgamation of the first and last of Grose’s expressions to describe what is properly called a strabismus, in which the eyes appear to be looking in different directions. His comment “As the country people said” suggests that in that form it was by his time already a folk saying of some age. Later North American writers, such as Thomas Chandler Haliburton of Nova Scotia, also used this version but extended it to mean askew, at a slant, in every direction.
A correspondent to the British journal Notes and Queries in 1861 knew it in the forms looking nine ways for Sunday and looking two ways for Sunday and noted that it was used in a different sense, for being completely at a loss or nonplussed. By then it must have been dying out in the UK; it isn’t now known here except as an Americanism and — in the form Six Ways to Sunday — the title of a 1999 film starring Deborah Harry.
As well as the multitudinous versions, the sense has shifted yet again, to mean completely, thoroughly or by every imaginable method, as in this example from 1894: “if you want to collect any bills from them you will have to chase them seven ways from Sunday”. Another, from 2013, also has that sense: “They both insist that their staff are the best in the business, and have been checked five ways to Sunday before they get hired.”
Sunday was presumably chosen because it would have been regarded as the most significant day of the week. The most common form probably owes its success to the alliteration of Sunday with six and a false mental association with a complete week.