Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 4 July 2009

Dot Wordsworth on being sent to Coventry

Someone at dinner the other day tried to convince us that the origin of the phrase sent to Coventry had something to do with a London livery company expelling members for some misdemeanour, forcing them to practise in Coventry, beyond the territorial limit of livery authority or (according to another version) a free-trade town that took no cognisance of guild controls.

I can’t say I was convinced by this explanation and I took an early opportunity to refer to a big fat dictionary. It offered little comfort. Indeed it suggested that readers might care to refer to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Now Brewer is a reference work best read in 19th-century editions for this reason: that at no period has it provided reliable origins for phrases, so it is better at least to learn what it was that they believed a century ago. It has historical value.

Brewer (in the 1898 edition) says: ‘According to Messrs Chambers (Cyclop’dia), the citizens of Coventry had at one time so great a dislike to soldiers that a woman seen speaking to one was instantly tabooed. No intercourse was ever allowed between the garrison and the town; hence, when a soldier was sent to Coventry, he was cut off from all social intercourse.’

This is not all square with the phrase to be explained, for it seems that the women were sending the soldiers to Coventry (metaphorically) when they were there already (literally), whereas the soldiers sent to Coventry literally were not being sent there by their comrades metaphorically. In any case, were Messrs Chambers right in supposing a dislike of soldiers in Coventry?

The trouble in which the Oxford English Dictionary finds itself is citing an occurrence of the literal phrase from 1647 which does not explain the metaphorical use first found in 1765.

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