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Sent to Coventry

 It’s the step before “Sleeps with the fishes.”

Dear Word Detective: What does it mean to be “sent to Coventry”? — David.

Well, that’s an admirably succinct question. To the point. Downright terse, some would say. Not me, mind you. Too much blather and balderdash these days, I say.

This is one of those cases where I welcome the question, but I’m also intensely curious as to where you heard or saw the phrase. I’ve run across “sent to Coventry” several times in novels, etc., but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard it said aloud by a real person.

Coventry is a city in the West Midlands of England, about 95 miles northwest of London. It’s a very old city, founded on a site settled during the Bronze Age, occupied by Romans and Vikings at various points, and officially chartered in the 14th century. During World War II, Coventry was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe, resulting in the destruction of Coventry Cathedral (aka St. Michael’s Cathedral), built in the 14th century. The bombed-out shell of the original Gothic cathedral has been preserved as a memorial next to a new (1962) modernist cathedral.

The origin of the name “Coventry” is a bit murky, but in Old English it was “Couentre,” meaning “tree of a man called Cofa,” probably referring to a tree marking a land boundary or a well-known place of assembly.

To “send a person to Coventry” means to ostracize the person, give them the cold shoulder, tolerate their presence but exclude them from polite society. The phrase first appeared in print in the 18th century, but seems to be rooted in the English Civil War between the Royalists and Parliamentarians of the 1640s. Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, in his “History of the rebellion and civil wars in England” (1703), notes that Royalist troops captured in Birmingham were sent to the Parliamentarian stronghold of Coventry and held as prisoners. Given the passions of the day, goes this story, the captives were not warmly received. However, another account claims that people in Coventry were simply hostile to the presence of troops from either side, and soldiers soon found that being “sent to Coventry” was a prescription for social isolation and loneliness.

Whatever the source, by the mid-18th to “be sent to Coventry” or “to be in Coventry” was an established idiom for being shunned and isolated as a punishment for some infraction, usually social (“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.” 1765). Today we’d say that the offender had been “frozen (or iced) out,” “banished” or simply “in the doghouse.”

Speaking of Coventry, that fair city is also the locus of one persistent legend and one phrase drawn from it. According to legend, in 1040 Lady Godiva was upset that her husband, the local Lord, was taxing the residents of Coventry too severely. He announced that he would lessen the taxes if she would ride through the town stark naked. She accepted the bargain, and out of respect all the townsfolk stayed inside during her ride. All except one, that is. A tailor named Thomas peeked from his window and, depending on which version of the legend one believes, either was promptly struck blind or had his eyes poked out by angry citizens. This incident is said to be the origin of “peeping Tom” as a synonym for “voyeur.”

Strait jacket

Comfortably numb.

Dear Word Detective: After finding your superb explanation of “manor born” versus “manner born,” I wish to inquire about the origins of “straight jacket” vs. “strait jacket.” I suspect the latter is the original usage, but I cannot find anything definitive concerning this. — George Hancock.

Good question. For the benefit of folks who missed my explanation of “to the [manner/manor] born” a few years ago, here’s a brief recap: meaning “accustomed by birth or upbringing to a certain ‘manner’ — attitudes, methods or practices,” the phrase comes from Shakespeare, specifically the first act of Hamlet. The dour Dane, commenting on the drunken atmosphere at Elsinore castle, remarks “But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honour’d in the breach than the observance.” By this he meant, basically, “I grew up with drunks, everybody here drinks, so it doesn’t bother me.” The phrase “to the manner born” has long been used in this “way we do things” sense, as well as to mean “naturally suited to something” (“John F. Kennedy was to the manner born. Nothing became him so much as the White House,” 1963).

In the 19th century the variant “to the manor born” first appeared, meaning “born into or suited to an upper-class social position” (“Not unequivocally to the manor born, he allied himself by marriage … and personal preference with the first families of Virginia,” 1962). It’s not clear whether the substitution of “manor” for “manner” resulted from a misunderstanding or a deliberate pun, but “manor” is now more common, which is too bad. “To the manner born” and “to the manor born” differ substantially in meaning.

Meanwhile, back at your actual question, the word is definitely “straitjacket,” defined by as “a jacket that has long arms which can be tied together behind someone’s back and that is used to control the movements of a violent prisoner or patient.” The term first appeared in print around 1814 (although the British equivalent “strait waistcoat” dates to 1753). Straitjackets are designed to tightly restrict a person’s movement, and thus “straitjacket” is also used figuratively to mean anything that restricts action, thought or expression (e.g., “the intellectual straitjacket of political orthodoxy”).

“Strait” is an adjective, noun and adverb derived from the Latin “strictus,” meaning “tightly bound” (also the source of “strict”). As an adjective, it means “narrow or tight” (thus “straitjacket,” a very tight jacket) or “strict, rigorous.” As an adverb, it’s used to mean “strictly” or “tightly,” as in “straitlaced,” tightly bound to tradition (originally, tightly laced into a corset).

As a noun, a “strait” is a tight or very narrow place, either literally (as in the Strait of Malacca, the narrow 500 mile stretch of ocean between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula) or figuratively in a variety of contexts. To follow a conventional and dutiful path in life is to be “on the strait and narrow” (a phrase taken from the Bible and now more commonly rendered “straight and narrow”). And if you wander off that path into a life of debauchery, you’re likely to eventually find yourself “in dire straits,” between a rock and a hard place, with no good choices available.


The correct answer is always “Beats me.”

Dear Word Detective:  Is “riddled” related to “riddle” meaning sieve? — Lee Jackson @VictorianLondon.

And they say serendipity is dead. I turned on my computer this morning and the first thing that caught my eye was this tweet tossing what seemed like a very interesting question into the churning maelstrom that is Twitter. Donning my water wings and pith helmet, I fired up my trusty Oxford English Dictionary and found the answer in two minutes flat. Of course, this being Twitter, a few hundred other people had already answered the question, but by then I was sufficiently intrigued by “riddle” to devote a column to it.

Incidentally, Lee Jackson is the proprietor of the fascinating Dictionary of Victorian London website ( which is, in fact, not a dictionary but a huge and highly authoritative exploration of the social history of Victorian London. Mr. Jackson has written several books about daily life in Victorian London and even a walking guide for visitors seeking what remains of that most atmospheric period in the city’s history.

There are two entirely separate “riddle” nouns in English, each with a related verb. (There’s actually a third “riddle” noun, an English regional term for the red ochre pigment, also known as “reddle” or “ruddle,” sometimes used to mark sheep. I’m gonna go ahead and ignore that one.)

The older of the two “riddle” nouns dates back to Old English, and comes from the same Germanic roots that gave us “to read.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the contemporary meaning of “riddle” to be “A question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning, frequently used as a game or pastime; an enigma; a conundrum.” That sense assumes that the “riddle” has, in fact, a proper answer that can be discovered, but “riddle” has also long been used to mean “a perplexing mystery or problem” or even “an enigmatic or mysterious person or entity” (“I am still a riddle they know not what to make of.” Jonathan Swift, 1711).

The other sort of “riddle,” also dating back to Old English, is a coarse-meshed sieve, the kind of thing you’d use to separate sand from gravel. This “riddle” is an alteration of the archaic English noun “ridder” (sieve), which also comes from Germanic roots, in this case related to the Latin words “cribrum” (sieve) and “cernere” (to separate, also the rood of our “discern”).

Both “riddle” nouns have related verb forms. For the “perplexing puzzle” noun we have “to riddle,” meaning “to ponder a riddle” or “to solve a riddle,” as well as “to pose a riddle,” traditionally introduced by the phrase “Riddle me this” or something similar (“Riddle me, riddle me right, Guess where I was last Friday night?” 1889).

For the “sieve” sort of “riddle,” we have “to riddle,” meaning “to run something through a riddle, e.g., separate corn from chaff” or, in a figurative sense, “to separate one kind of thing from another (e.g., athletes from couch potatoes) via some sort of test or standard.” But the most common sense today of the verb “to riddle” today is “to fill with holes, like those in a riddle,” usually with bullets or other ordnance (although clothes moths can do a good job of riddling too). An extended sense that arose in the 19th century uses “riddle” to mean “to permeate or pervade with something undesirable,” as in a government or industry “riddled with corruption.”