While the exact origin of “sent to Coventry” continues to elude historians, its meaning remains steadfast. An English idiom, this phrase is not as predictable as other phrases, like “the finer things in life.” But its modern usage refers to a person ignored by society, friends, and family.
I recently used the phrase for a theme of a short story. In it my protagonist suffers from silence abuse at the hands of a parent. Adopting the genre of magical realism, I placed my protagonist on the road to Coventry.
Coventry is a real place in England. It’s one of the UK’s larger cities. Circling its center is a sizeable arterial ring-road, the A4053. I imagined my protagonist trapped on a deserted version of this ring road.
The illusive origins of “sent to Coventry”
Speculation surrounds the origins of sent to Coventry. Some advocates believe it emerged during an intelligence incident in WWII. However, the words also appear in print in English colonies long before WWII.
In the The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (via Trove) on Saturday, 18 April 1812, its appears in an article about a meeting of cordwainers (shoemakers).
The full article addresses the minutes of the meeting about shoe quality sold to shops. It presents the adoption of a proposed resolution, which also threatens members with expulsion, announcing they would be “sent to Coventry forthwith.”
Another theory proposed by BritianOnline’s city guide for Coventry ties the origins of the phrase to the English civil war of the 1640’s, where Parliamentarians shunned captured royalist troops taken to Coventry.
But a slightly different version of its origin made its way into The Ballarat Star (via Trove) on Saturday, 24 June 1882. Published as an extract from a letter authored by a Mr. Wilmot Dixon, it attempts to educate the public on the phrase’s origins.
Dixon ties the phrase to military circumstances in the 1700s when the civilian society of Coventry “boycotted” the redcoats as if they had the “plague.” He states, the phrase “sent to Coventry” became mess room talk for an “execrable exile” for a soldier.
The modern use of the idiom
Today’s use of the phrase refers to deliberately excluding a person as if they no longer exist. Other phrases or words that have a similar context include:
- To turn a cold shoulder.
- In the dog house.
- Show the door.
My short-story and the phrase ‘sent to Coventry’
My short story focuses on a teenager who suffers from emotional abuse. Living at home alone with her father, he stops talking to her for days on end as a form of punishment. The setting, the empty circular ring-road around Coventry acts as metaphor for the way she feels.
Fog is another metaphor that I use throughout my story. Susan Forward & Donna Frazier originally conceived the acronym, FOG for fear, obligation and guilt in their book Emotional Blackmail.
I entered the short story into a competition in 2017. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful. However, after reading through it again and seeing a few areas for improvement, I’ve chosen to put it back into my revision pile.
If you’re interested in beta-reading my new improved story, get in contact. In the meantime, perhaps a comprehensive journey into old texts, letters and print will uncover a definitive origin for this phrase.
Cover image credit:
Girl walking alone down a foggy road. | © Acronimo | Dreamstime.com