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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.”

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