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The meaning and origin of the expression: Sent to Coventry

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Sent to Coventry

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Meaning

To be ignored or ostracised. This behaviour often takes the form of pretending that the shunned person, although conspicuously present, can't be seen or heard.

Origin

sent to coventryThe origins of this phrase aren't known, although it is quite probable that events in Coventry in the English Civil War in the 1640s play a part. For those not familiar with the UK, Coventry is an industrial city in Warwickshire, England. It is well-known for its two cathedrals; the modern cathedral being built in 1962 to replace the old cathedral, which was destroyed during an intense German bombing raid in 1940.

In the 17th century, when this phrase is supposed to have originated, Coventry was a small town. It has been suggested that the phrase, although we now use it in an allusory sense, originated from people being actually sent there.

The story - and it is no more than that - is that Cromwell sent a group of Royalist soldiers to be imprisoned in Coventry, around 1648. The locals, who were parliamentary supporters, shunned them and refused to consort with them.

The first known citation of the allusory meaning 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."

By 1811, the then understood 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.

A well-known example of someone being sent to Coventry is Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), after his falling out with the Liddell family. Dodgson had developed a close relationship with the Liddell's daughter Alice. In 1863, when Alice was 11, something happened to cause the family to ostracize him. Whatever it was we can't now be sure as, although Dodgson recorded it in his diary at the time, the entry was later cut out by a Dodgson family member. This has led to widespread but unproven speculation that the relationship between Dodgson and Alice was inappropriate in some way - possibly what would now be called paedophilic.

This phrase was common in industrial disputes in Britain in the mid-twentieth century. Anyone who was considered to be unsupportive of the workforce was in danger of finding that his/her workmates refused to acknowledge their existence. Co-incidentally this was centred on the highly unionized car industry and especially British Leyland, which was largely based in Coventry. That gave rise to people who had in fact lived and worked in Coventry all their life being sent there figuratively by their workmates.

There's no substance in the suggestion sometimes put about that this relates to the disgrace of that well-known (if imaginary) Coventry resident - Peeping Tom.