Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Seven Ways To Sunday

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 22, 2013

It’s not often you hear someone say they’ve tried seven ways to Sunday to get something done, but when you do hear it, you know that person tried a variety of possibilities before giving up on solving the problem. Not only that, the person was thorough in his or her pursuit of a solution or answer to the problem. Once a person has tried seven ways to Sunday, there isn’t much of anything else that can be done by that person although someone else might be able to pick up where the other person left off, and arrive at a solution or answer to that very problem.

In a January 10, 2011 news story by Christopher Keating entitled, “Connecticut Has Twice As Many State Government Managers As National Average” and published in the Hartford Courant newspaper, the situation with government managers in Connecticut was addressed. Among many things that were reported was this:

“I would never sign a tolling bill that did not, in seven ways to Sunday, lock box the revenue for transportation purposes,” Malloy said. “I think it is inevitable that it will be actively considered.”

But tolls are clearly a long-term issue that will not be decided immediately.

“I don’t assume that this budget will be based in any way on tolls,” he said.

Going back nearly 50 years before that, the Youngstown Vindicator published an article on December 4, 1963 by reporter, Joseph Alsop entitled, “Maybe Goldwater Isn’t Blocked.” The article was about the political situation in the U.S. and the possibility that Senator Barry Goldwater might be blocked from being a Republican presidential nominee. It read in part:

No effective obstacle to this scheme was visible anywhere prior to the loss of President Kennedy. This was the case although the hot-eyed Goldwaterites were in a decided minority among Connecticut Republicans, who generally lean to the progressive side.

The party as a whole was (and still is) split seven ways to Sunday, principally by the feud between the former and present chairmen, Edwin May and Searle Pinney. Besides being divided among themselves, even those Republicans who were most certain Goldwater would be poison in Connecticut were also certain no one could beat a Kennedy-led ticket here. Thus no effective opposition to Goldwater coalesced anywhere.

The fact of the matter is that the number in the saying seven ways to Sunday is a constantly changing number. Some say it’s six ways to Sunday while others say it’s a thousand ways to Sunday. Some say it’s forty ways to Sunday while still others say it’s only six ways to Sunday. Some people have been known to say every which way from Sunday. Sometimes the preposition changes and from or for is substituted for the word to, all the while maintaining the right to change the number of days it might take.

The proof is in the pudding (as the saying goes) as this example from the October 10, 1910 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided this humorous elegy allegedly found in a country church yard:

But all is over and his soul is borne
To that far away country of the wine and corn
To jump six ways for Sunday every time
The Angel Gabriel toots his horn.

And despite the fact that there are so many different avenues to head off on in researching this phrase (based on numbers alone), perhaps the most intriguing (although unconfirmed) origin of the expression is this one.

The story goes that the saying dates back to the second half of the twelfth century when disbelievers and heretics were targeted by the Pope in Rome. Allegedly, the Pope sent out orders to every Archbishop that the last person to show up for Sunday service was to have the devil beaten out of him … six ways to Sunday. The punishment was to be meted out every day for a week until the following Sunday when another parishioner was tagged as the last one to show up for Sunday service.

Now the punishment wasn’t the same day in and day out.  Variety was added so the penitent parishioner would remember what he or she had done wrong.  In order to create variety, the punishment was to be carried out with a different instrument each day: Stout Mace for Mondays, Iron-tipped Boot for Tuesdays, Broad Sword (flat edge, not the sharp edge) for Wednesdays, Wide Belt for Thursdays, Stones for Fridays, and on Saturdays, depending on the season, the weapon of choice was either Ice (in winter) or Cabbage (in summer).

While Idiomation cannot confirm or rule out this anecdote, it certainly bears sharing since the story is sufficiently steeped in historical references that one might be led to believe it’s accurate even if it proves to be a prank tale.

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2 Responses to “Seven Ways To Sunday”

  1. Who would have thought such a benign sounding saying actually comes from a scale of punishments. It reminds me of the phrase “rule of thumb,” which is really about how thick a stick a husband should use to beat his wife: the rule is it should be no thicker than the man’s thumb.

    • That’s one of the many reasons I love researching idioms. I never know where the research will take me, and sometimes there’s no way I could have imagined in a million years that a saying would take me where it does. Thanks for commenting, Debbie. 🙂

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