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To send someone to Coventry is a British idiom meaning to deliberately ostracise someone. Typically, this is done by not talking to them, avoiding their company and generally pretending that they no longer exist or are invisible. To have been sent to Coventry is regarded as to be absent. It is often used to punish people who, for example, refuse to join a strike. The Coventry referred to in the phrase is a cathedral city in the West Midlands, England.
The origins of this phrase are not known, although it is quite probable that events in Coventry in the English Civil War in the 1640s play a part. One hypothesis as to its origin is based upon The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. In this work, Hyde recounts how Royalist troops that were captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry, which was a Parliamentarian stronghold. These troops were often not received warmly by the locals.
A book entitled Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals dated 1735 states that Charles II passed an act (law) "whereby any person with malice aforethought by lying in wait unlawfully cutting out or disabling the tongue, putting out an eye, slitting the nose or cutting off the nose or lip of any subject of His Majesty......shall suffer death." This was called the Coventry Act, after the MP Sir John Coventry who had been attacked and "had his nose slit to the bone". Therefore if you committed the crime you were sentenced under the Coventry Act.
There are many people who believe that the story somehow derives from another folk tale concerning Coventry – and that is the story of Lady Godiva, from where the saying “Peeping Tom” originated. This is a story that goes back to before the Doomsday Book of 1085, and claims that Godiva – the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia – rode naked through Coventry to try to persuade her husband to be more lenient with the high taxation he had levied on the townsfolk. The people of the town had all pledged to turn away and not look at the Lady, but one man, a Taylor of the town, is said to have drilled a hole in his shutters to look at her and was later struck blind – he got called Peeping Tom. To punish him for his disrespect, the townspeople shunned him thereafter and did not speak to him. Thus as this story was retold,Tom was the first to have been "sent to Coventry".
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.
In the book about British diarist James Woodforde "Diary of a Country Parson 1758 - 1802" an entry for May 18th 1779 says "We laughed immoderately after dinner on Mrs. Howes being sent to Coventry by us for an Hour".
By 1811, the 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.
According to William Clark in Tales of the Wars (1836), the phrase originates from a story about a regiment that was stationed in the town of Coventry, England, but was ill-received and denied services.
The phrase was common in industrial disputes in Britain in the mid-twentieth century. Anyone considered unsupportive of strikers was in danger of finding that his workmates refused to acknowledge his existence. For example, in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, Stephen Blackpool is sent to Coventry after publicly speaking out against an impending workers' strike.
W.S. Gilbert's 1894 operetta "His Excellency", Act II, in the song "A hive of bees, as I’ve heard say" Peter, the eccentric bee who tries to swarm all alone, is banished from the hive by the Queen Bee who exclaims, "To Coventry go, you tipsy bee!”
In the 1937 movie, Captains Courageous, just such a sentence (ostracism) is carried out on young Harvey Cheyne, by his boarding school teacher and classmates.
The 1938 film Lord Jeff has orphan Terry O'Mulvaney refusing to inform on fellow orphan (and title character) Geoffrey Braemer despite being sent to Coventry by his peers in the naval military school.
In the 1960 film The Angry Silence, Richard Attenborough's character Tom Curtis gets "sent to Coventry" by fellow workers for refusing to go out on an unofficial strike.
Gunsmoke episode twenty-four of season seven (1961) is titled "Coventry" as Dean Beard (played by Joe Maross) is shunned by the residents of Dodge City for murder and cheating several ranchers out of their land.
vBulletin's global ignore list is known internally as "Tachy Goes to Coventry". A user who has been sent to Coventry can see his posts, but all other users do not.
Microsoft Word lists 'Send to Coventry' as a synonym for the word 'ostracise'.