Our penultimate stop is just a short thirty-four-mile journey from Gotham (the Nottinghamshire one, that is, not the New York one). We’re heading for the city of Coventry -but, thankfully, we’re going of our own volition. We’ve certainly not been sent there.
People who are ostracised or excluded from a group have been figuratively sent to Coventry for over three hundred years. Back then, when this phrase is supposed to have emerged in the seventeenth century, Coventry was still a relatively small town. But, according to etymological legend, it was nevertheless significant enough to warrant playing quite a considerable role in an event of the English Civil War.
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In The History of the Rebellion (1702-4), a first-hand account of the Civil War written by Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, a group of Royalist troops apprehended in the city of Birmingham is recorded as having been taken to nearby Coventry to be imprisoned. At the time of the conflict, Coventry was a parliamentarian stronghold, and as a result the arrival of some of the king’s Royalist troops in the town would hardly have been met with a warm welcome from the residents. As a result, the Royalists were widely derided and shunned throughout the town and, according to etymological lore, it was this mistreatment that led to an ostracised person being said to be sent to Coventry. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. The Earl of Clarendon’s anecdote is certainly a compelling etymological tale, and it’s by no means an implausible one either. The only problem is that there is no etymological evidence, other than the details of the story itself, to support its popular claim as the rightful origin of being sent to Coventry.
But there’s actually very little written evidence of anything that might give us a clue to the likely origin of being sent to Coventry; looking back through the literary record, it’s almost as if the phrase emerged out of nowhere sometime in the early 1700s. And with that absence of any kind of proof, plenty of alternative theories have emerged over the years purporting to fill in the etymological gap.
One explanation, for instance, claims that the phrase might allude to the poor treatment of the family of ‘Peeping Tom’, the legendary prankster who spied on Lady Godiva as she rode nude through the city of Coventry. Lady Godiva, however, lived during the eleventh century, and even the legend of her naked ride through the city did not emerge until the 1200s at least. If Peeping Tom were to blame for being sent to Coventry, we would presume to find more evidence of the expression between then and the mid 1700s.
Another theory claims that the phrase could in some way allude to Sir John Coventry. He was a seventeenth-century member of parliament who in 1670, after making a bawdy comment in the House of Commons about Charles II’s love affair with a noted London actress, was set on by a number of the king’s Royalist supporters and brutally mutilated. The attack caused an uproar, and led to the passing of the so-called Coventry Act, which stated:
That if any person shall, of malice aforethought, and by laying in wait, unlawfully cut or disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut off the nose or lip, or cut off or disable any limb, or member of any other person, with intent to maim or disfigure him, such person, his counsellors, aiders and abettors, shall be guilty of felony.
But if this is the origin of being sent to Coventry, how did it come to mean ‘to ostracise’? That’s a question that casts a great deal of doubt on Sir John’s involvement here.
And then there’s this:
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 the lexicographer Francis Grose, who compiled this somewhat detailed description of being sent to Coventry in the late eighteenth century, the phrase appears to have had military connections. Could Grose’s ‘officers of the army’ have known about the mistreatment of the Earl of Clarendon’s Royalist troops, roughly a hundred and thirty years after the event? It seems unlikely. But, then again, perhaps we’re looking too hard for an explanation here?
Perhaps Coventry was merely chosen at random, the placeholder name of a random city, of indiscriminate distance from the ostracised character in question; just as Grose points out, when the ostracism ends, it is almost as if the shunned person has merely ‘returned from a journey to Coventry’. Perhaps being sent to Coventry could just as easily have been sent to Glasgow, sent to Labrador or sent to Timbuktu? Perhaps there’s an absence of etymological proof here, because there was an absence of etymological reasoning in the first place?
Ironically, without any more etymological proof, it’s impossible to say anything at all.
Coventry’s nose was reportedly cut so deeply in the attack that the bone of his skull underneath was revealed. The Oxford English Dictionary ultimately lists an entry for a verb to Coventry, which it defines as ‘to slit the nose of’.
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