"Send to Coventry" - Meaning and origins of the phrase


To send someone to Coventry is a British idiom meaning to ostracise someone, or act as if they are not present.

The origins of the phrase are not known though it is likely its roots are in some historical event involving Coventry.

It is a common belief that the phrase refers to a particular situation that arose during World War II. British intelligence had deciphered encrypted German communications indicating that a devastating air raid on Coventry was being planned. But the government were reluctant to inform the general public in Coventry about the planned attack in case the Germans discovered their cover had been blown and developed a more sophisticated form of encryption. Hence the people of Coventry were kept in the dark. However, people who were alive before the war will attest that the phrase was in usage before.

It is clear from Francis Grose's "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue", a dictionary of slang produced in 1811, that the phrase was in use at that time. Here is what Grose's Dictionary has this to say about being sent to Coventry:

"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."

The phrase or meaning inferred by it seems to have been in use in the previous century too. A 1765 publication, the "Club book of the Tarporley Hunt" comments thus:

"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."

The origin of the phrase may be in the 17th century, arising from incidents in the Civil War in the 1640s. Royalist troops were captured in Birmingham and taken to Coventry, where thay were ostracised by the Parliamentarian-leaning Coventry population.