Sayings associated with the City and Livery Companies

Just as there are many family names that derive from trades, crafts as professions (Baker, Carpenter, Smith, etc) there are many sayings that find their roots in City and Livery company practices. The following are some of the better known sayings:

  • At Sixes and Sevens, meaning in a state of confusion or being in a muddle. This saying has become associated with the Billesdon Award handed down to the Skinners’ Company and Merchant Taylors’ Company by Lord Mayor Billesdson in 1485. Neither company could agree about their position in the order of precedence so Billesdon ordered them to take turns year and year about. To this very day the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors alternate between sixth and seventh position in the order of precedence. There is some evidence this saying (or one very similar) was known prior to the Billesdon Award - even if that be true the Skinners and Merchant Taylors have certainly made it their own.
  • On Tenterhooks, meaning in a state of suspense or nervousness. This saying derives from the practice of the Clothworkers Company of hanging out cloth to dry on wooden frames. The cloth was held taught by special hooks named tenterhooks. The Clothworkers’ Company coat of arms features two tenterhooks.
  • I shall keep it under my hat, meaning to keep something hidden or secret. This saying follows a custom still practiced after the Silent Ceremony. The outgoing Lord Mayor asks the Swordbearer to hand him the keys to the safe in which is kept the City’s great seal. The Swordbearer removes his Muscovy hat and takes the key from a pocket in the underside of the hat. The Swordbearer hands the outgoing Lord Mayor the key, he in turns hands it to the new Lord Mayor who returns it to the Swordbearer and asks him to keep it safe. The Swordbearer receives the key back and says ‘I shall keep it under my hat’, whereupon he returns the key to the pocket in the underside of his Muscovy hat and places the hat back on his head.
  • Bakers’ Dozen, meaning 13. Punishments for Bakers selling customers short or producing bread that was underweight were quite severe in medieval times. The Bakers’ Company would carry out inspections and fine Bakers for failure to produce loaves of good quality and sufficient weight. Punishments escalated with repeat offences including breaking of ovens and imprisonment. Bakers didn’t want to be caught selling short measure, so one trick was to include an extra loaf in every dozen sold.
  • If the cap fits, wear it, has come to mean to accept a criticism that is fair or appropriate, but the term actually derives from the practice of electing or anointing officials by placing a cap on their head. The Skinners Company elect their master by placing a cap on the head of each of the wardens of that company during the Cocks and Caps ceremony. By a mysterious process the cap only fits the elected warden. 

There are many other words and sayings that are associated with City of London and Livery Company practices, some of them have their origins elsewhere and have become attached to the City, others find their origin in the Square Mile. See if you can find the link between the City and these words and sayings:

  • Benchmark(ing)
  • Bury the hatchet
  • Copyright
  • Hallmark(ing)
  • Make your mark
  • Past your prime
  • Sent to Coventry
  • Up to scratch
  • Third Degree

© Paul David Jagger 2016                                                                                             Twitter: @CityandLivery