These Two London Buildings Spawned A Classic Idiom

These Two London Buildings Spawned A Classic Idiom
Composite Merchant Taylors top, Skinners Company below. Original photos from Treble2309

"They've had a shocker Gary, the defence is completely at sixes and sevens." Those words are uttered nearly ever Saturday night on BBC One, as another Match of the Day pundit callously shreds a mediocre Premier League team's excuse for defending.

Ignoring the lack of variety in football punditry, let's take a look at their exact choice of words: at sixes and sevens. This phrase doesn't originate from football; it comes from two of London's livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors and the Worshipful Company of Skinners.

Worshipful Company of Skinners. Photo: Matt Brown

There are 110 livery companies in the City of London, and their precedence — or rankings — was a long standing point of contention between the Merchant Taylors and Skinners. They were squabbling over who would be ranked sixth, while the other would be left behind in seventh. Both companies received their first royal charters in 1327, and perhaps their coincidental beginnings gave both a sense of entitlement to seniority.

Things came to a rather nasty head in 1484 during the Lord Mayor's river procession. In said event, the precedence became clearly visualised, as the companies followed the mayor in order of their rankings. Except the Taylors and Skinners had not settled their beef, so raced each other down the Thames, with each trying to overtake the other. Things culminated in a brawl which got so violent, it left apprentices from both companies dead.

Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors. Photo: Treble2309

The Lord Mayor stepped in to mediate between the two warring factions and arrived at a compromise, that stands to this day. Each year the two companies swapped positions in the rankings, so one would be at six and the other at seven. This was enshrined when the rankings were made official in 1515.

It's from here that the idiom supposedly arises, meaning a disagreement between two parties or a state of confusion and disarray. There are arguments that the phrase pre-dates these incidents though possibly with a slightly different meaning, which might be where the confusion aspect of the modern idiom comes from.

So next time you're watching Match of the Day and the old cliche gets trotted out, or just wandering past these two historic buildings in the City of London, spare a thought for the apprentices who died in the brawl.

Last Updated 02 January 2018