Writing about Leonard Cohen’s famous song Hallelujah, a music critic wrote: “First released in 1984, [Hallelujah] has been covered six ways from Sunday by a wide range of artists (from Jeff Buckley to Bon Jovi).” Say what? What does “six ways from Sunday” mean?
Just like the aforementioned Cohen song, this phrase is a bit of chameleon, changing over time, shifting in wording depending on the speaker or writer. The phrase has a number of variants — seems like no one can decide just how many ways from Sunday to emphasize. Variants include: “two ways to Sunday,” “three ways to Sunday,” “four ways to Sunday,” “four different ways to Sunday,” “five ways to Sunday,” “seven ways to Sunday,” “eight ways to Sunday,” “nine ways to Sunday,” “ten ways to Sunday,” “twelve ways to Sunday,” “twenty ways to Sunday,” “forty ways till Sunday,” and then a giant leap to “hundred ways to Sunday.” And then there is the variation of the preposition: six ways to Sunday, or six ways from Sunday.
Despite the various wording of the phrases, however, their meanings remains the same: “six ways from Sunday” (the most common form of the idiom) means “in every possible way,” “completely,” or “thoroughly.” The phrase “six ways for Sunday” makes its first appearance in the early 1800s, while the more common version, “six ways from Sunday” first appears in the late 1800s. “So how did it come about?” you ask. Excellent question; however, the inspiration is not fully known. Lexicographers have surmised that since a calendar has six days before (or after) Sunday, the idiom underscores the certainty of reaching Sunday no matter where you begin. Moreover, the idiom implies that there are multiple methods of approach to Sunday, thus applied generally, it means many options to reach the same target — in short, thoroughness.
The precise origin of this phrase is not clear and has perplexed many lexicographers. However, lexicographer Michael Quinion offers perhaps what is the most compelling — and only — explanation. He cites a passage from James Pauling’s short story, “Cobus Yerks” (1828) as the first formulation of the phrase in America (a variant of the modern form we recognize today): “looked at least nine ways from Sunday.” Quinion suggests that this phrase is an amalgamation of two earlier British slang phrases: “she had look’d nine ways” (1622) and “looking both ways for Sunday” (1785). Over the years, of course, other writers severed the association with the verb “look” (making the phrase far more versatile) and tinkered with the number of ways. Quinion adds: “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.”
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