Send to Coventry

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

To send someone to Coventry is a British idiom meaning to deliberately ostracise someone. Typically, this is done by not talking to them, avoiding someone's company and generally pretending that they no longer exist. Victims are treated as though they are completely invisible and inaudible. It is often used to punish people who, for example, refuse to join a strike.[1] The Coventry referred to in the phrase is a cathedral city in the West Midlands, England.

Origin of the term[edit]

The origins of this phrase are unknown, although it is quite probable that events in Coventry in the English Civil War in the 1640s play a part. One hypothesis as to its origin is based upon The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. In this work, Hyde recounts how Royalist troops that were captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry, which was a Parliamentarian stronghold. These troops were often not received warmly by the locals.[citation needed]

A book entitled Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735) states that Charles II passed an act (law) "whereby any person with malice aforethought by lying in wait unlawfully cutting out or disabling the tongue, putting out an eye, slitting the nose or cutting off the nose or lip of any subject of His Majesty......shall suffer death." This was called the Coventry Act, after the MP Sir John Coventry who had been attacked and "had his nose slit to the bone".[2] Therefore, if one committed the crime s/he was sentenced under the Coventry Act.

Some people[who?] have suggested that the story somehow derives from the story of Lady Godiva, from which the saying “Peeping Tom” originated. This folk story goes back to before the Domesday Book of 1085 and claims that Godiva – the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia – rode naked through Coventry to try to persuade her husband to be more lenient with the high taxation he had levied on the townsfolk. The people of the town had all pledged to turn away and not look at the Lady, but one man, a tailor of the town, is said to have drilled a hole in his shutters to look at her and was later struck blind – he got called Peeping Tom. To punish him for his disrespect, the townspeople shunned him thereafter and did not speak to him. Thus, as this story was retold, Tom was the first to have been "sent to Coventry".[citation needed]. However it seems unlikely that Tom would have been 'sent to Coventry', as he was already there. If the tale of Lady Godiva was the inspiration for the phrase, it is surprising that there is no recorded use between the 1050s (Leofric died in 1057) and the first possible source suggested by OED dated 1647. Furthermore, there is no support for this derivation in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable [1981], the Oxford English Dictionary [1986], or Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English [1961].

The first known citation of the idiomatic meaning[3] is from the Club book of the Tarporley Hunt (1765):

Mr. John Barry having sent the Fox Hounds to a different place to what was ordered was sent to Coventry, but return'd upon giving six bottles of Claret to the Hunt.

In the book about British diarist James Woodforde, "Diary of a Country Parson 1758 - 1802", an entry for 18 May 1779 says: "We laughed immoderately after dinner on Mrs. Howes being sent to Coventry by us for an Hour".[citation needed]

By 1811, the meaning of the term was defined in Grose's The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

To send one to Coventry; a punishment inflicted by officers of the army on such of their brethren as are testy, or have been guilty of improper behaviour, not worthy the cognizance of a court martial. The person sent to Coventry is considered as absent; no one must speak to or answer any question he asks, except relative to duty, under penalty of being also sent to the same place. On a proper submission, the penitent is recalled, and welcomed by the mess, as just returned from a journey to Coventry.[4]

According to William Clark in Tales of the Wars (1836), the phrase originates from a story about a regiment that was stationed in the town of Coventry, England but was ill-received and denied services.[5]

Later use[edit]

The phrase was common in industrial disputes in Britain, by the mid-nineteenth century.[citation needed] Anyone considered unsupportive of strikers was in danger of finding that his workmates refused to acknowledge his existence. For example, in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, Stephen Blackpool is sent to Coventry after publicly speaking out against an impending workers' strike.

W.S. Gilbert's 1894 operetta "His Excellency", Act II, in the song "A hive of bees, as I’ve heard say" Peter, the eccentric bee who tries to swarm all alone, is banished from the hive by the Queen Bee who exclaims, "To Coventry go, you tipsy bee!”

In the 1937 movie, Captains Courageous, just such a sentence (ostracism) is carried out on young Harvey Cheyne, by his boarding school teacher and classmates.

The 1938 film Lord Jeff has orphan Terry O'Mulvaney refusing to inform on fellow orphan (and title character) Geoffrey Braemer despite being sent to Coventry by his peers in the naval military school.[6]

In Enid Blyton's school stories such as Malory Towers, the girls regard being sent to Coventry as the utmost punishment. There are several occasions through the series where this occurs.

In the 1960 film The Angry Silence, Richard Attenborough's character Tom Curtis gets "sent to Coventry" by fellow workers for refusing to go out on an unofficial strike.

Gunsmoke episode twenty-four of season seven (1961) is titled "Coventry" as Dean Beard (played by Joe Maross) is shunned by the residents of Dodge City for murder and cheating several ranchers out of their land.

In the 1967 novel The Captain, by Jan de Hartog, a disliked new addition to a tugboat crew is ignored in part of a hazing process. It is described as being sent to Coventry.

In the 1976 episode of Are You Being Served? entitled Forward Mr. Grainger, Mr. Ernst Grainger is called upon to assume the position of floor manager temporarily, and it goes to his head. When Mr. Rumbold returns, Mr. Grainger has made himself so unliked that his fellows all studiously turn their heads away from him. He asks "I haven't been sent to Coventry, have I?" and upon receiving no answer, is forced to conclude "Oh, I have."

Robert A. Heinlein as part of his Future History series, used a fictional land called Coventry as a main plot device in his short story Coventry.

vBulletin's global ignore list is known internally as "Tachy Goes to Coventry". A user who has been sent to Coventry can see his posts, but all other users do not.

Microsoft Word lists 'Send to Coventry' as a synonym for the word 'ostracise'.

In the English translation of the Asterix book "Asterix and the Roman Agent", on the Roman galley, while the sailors are bickering with each other the sailor in the crow's nest points out that there are pirates nearby. When asked what the crew should do, The captain of the ship replies "Nobody is to listen to him! He's been sent to Coventrium!"


  1. ^ "The Phrase Finder". Retrieved 2012-07-04. 
  2. ^ Arthur L.Hayward, ed. (2002). Key writings on subcultures, 1535–1727 : classics from the underworld. (2nd ed., repr. ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-28680-0. 
  3. ^ "Coventry". Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) (Oxford University Press). 1999. 
  4. ^ "Coventry (Grose 1811 dictionary)". Retrieved 2009-09-14. 
  5. ^ Clark, William M. (1836). Tales of the Wars. Volume 1, p. 72.
  6. ^ Lord Jeff (1938)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]