Send to Coventry
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To send someone to Coventry is an English 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. The Coventry referred to in the phrase is a cathedral city then in Warwickshire, now in the West Midlands county.
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, Clarendon 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.
A book entitled Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735) states that Charles II passed an act "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 Sir John Coventry MP, who had "had his nose slit to the bone" by attackers.
Some have suggested that the idiom is somehow connected with the legend of Lady Godiva, from which the phrase "Peeping Tom" is also derived. This story goes back to before the Domesday Book of 1086 and relates how Godiva—the wife of the Earl of Mercia—rode naked through Coventry 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 stay indoors and not look at the lady, but one man is said to have looked anyway—he became known as Peeping Tom. To punish him for his disrespect, the townspeople shunned him thereafter and did not speak to him, making him the first to have been "sent to Coventry". 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 example suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary, 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).
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.
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.
According to William Clark in Tales of the Wars (1836), the phrase originates from a story about a regiment that was stationed in the city of Coventry but was ill-received and denied services.
- 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.
- "Coventry". Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. 1999.
- "Coventry (Grose 1811 dictionary)". fromoldbooks.org. Retrieved 2009-09-14.
- Clark, William M. (1836). Tales of the Wars. Volume 1, p. 72.