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At Sixes and Sevens

If a situation is “at sixes and sevens” it is generally held to be in a state of confusion in which nobody is quite sure what to do next. The phrase might also be used to describe the bedroom of the average teenager. People who disagree with each other can also be at sixes and sevens when there appears to be no easy reconciliation of their dispute – they might also be described as “at loggerheads”.

But where does this unusual expression come from? Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests that the most likely explanation is that it has to with gambling with dice, probably because the most common totals when two dice are thrown are six and seven.

However, there is a far more colourful account of the phrase’s origin, which has to do with the medieval livery companies of the City of London. These were the craft guilds that acted like combinations of professional associations and early trade unions. They set the standards for their trades, only admitting to their ranks people who demonstrated an acceptable level of skill and who had practised their craft for a certain period of time. The guilds took great pride in their professional status and developed ceremonial uniforms (“liveries”) that they wore on special occasions, such as the procession that marked the inauguration of a new Lord Mayor.

The twelve livery companies were keen to preserve their “pecking order” in terms of which trade was deemed to take precedence over the others. Top of the tree were the Mercers, or general merchants, and twelfth in line were the Clothworkers.

However, in the middle were the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners. These companies had both received their royal charters within a few days of each other in 1327 and both claimed to be number six, with the other being number seven. The dispute ran for more than 150 years, and may have been the inspiration for a line in Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde” (c. 1386) that runs “… set the world on six and sevene, / And if thou deye a martyr, go to hevene”.

Eventually the two companies decided to accept the judgment of the Lord Mayor and aldermen, so the matter was presented to Sir Robert Billesden, who was Lord Mayor in 1484. He came up with a compromise solution that sounds typically English, especially as it involved the consumption of food and drink.

The judgment was that there should be two dinners, held annually, at which the master and wardens of one company would entertain the other. Having made friends with each other by eating and drinking together, they would not object if they took it in turns to be number six. Sir Robert decreed that, in the first year, this would be the Skinners, but the Merchant Taylors would precede them in the following year.

This arrangement, with the Merchant Taylors and Skinners taking turn to precede each other, has continued ever since, thus the two companies are always “at sixes and sevens”.

So what do you think is the correct explanation?

(The photo of the Lord Mayor’s Show is not by me, but taken from a copyright-free source)

  • Question of

    Which explanation do you think is more likely?

    • Gambling with dice
    • Sir Robert’s compromise
  • Question of

    A slightly different question – which would you prefer it to be?

    • Gambling with dice
    • Sir Robert’s compromise

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  1. I do often wonder about the English.

    But then, when wondering I realize most of America is here because of the English. The story made me laugh, because it is a dispute I can see and understand. It is one that we still have all around the world.

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At Sixes and Sevens

Do you ever hear or use the expression “at sixes and sevens”? It means being confused and not sure what your next move should be. It might be used when there is a disagreement between individuals or groups of people and there does not appear to be a solution in sight.

But what is the origin of the expression? It might be something to do with gamblers throwing dice, because when two dice are thrown the most common totals are six and seven. However, there is a much more interesting possibility!

During medieval times the tradesmen of the old City of London formed “guilds” that were a combination of trade union and professional club. They were an early form of quality control, in that they only admitted to their ranks people who showed proficiency in their work and had “served their time”. Guild members could charge more for their products than non-members, on the basis that the customer knew that he was likely to be getting good quality in the goods or services on offer.

Being a guild member was therefore a matter of pride, and the guilds turned into “livery companies” that had coats of arms and uniforms that they wore on special occasions such as the annual Lord Mayor’s Show – an event that is still held at the present day.

Twelve livery companies were formed, and each was assigned a number based on the date of their recognition by royal charter. The lower the number, the higher the precedence, which mattered when it came to the order in which the companies marched in the procession that accompanied the Lord Mayor on his way to the Guildhall. The Mercers were number one and the Clothworkers number twelve.

However, there was a problem with number six. This was because the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners received their charters at the same time in 1327 – certainly within a few days of each other. One of them had to be number six and the other number seven, but nobody was quite sure which way round they should be. The dispute went on for 150 years!

Eventually, in 1484, the Lord Mayor of the time, Sir Robert Billesden, came up with a solution that suited everyone, especially as it involved the consumption of food and drink!

He decreed that the two companies should each hold an annual dinner, to which the master and wardens of the other company would be invited as honoured guests. Having made friends in this way, they would not object to taking turns each year to be number six. Sir Robert suggested that the Skinners should first have the honour, with the Merchant Taylors taking over the following year.

This is what has happened every year since, with the Skinners and Merchant Taylors being permanently “at sixes and sevens”. The odd thing is that this arrangement is actually one that ensures good order, whereas the expression means precisely the opposite!

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