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I was reading in the paper today of some hapless wight who had been sent to Coventry (meaning ostracised and given the silent treatment) by his colleages. It then occurred to me to wonder why Coventry should have been chosen for this idiom.

Phrases suggests:-

The story - and it is no more than that - is that Cromwell sent a group of Royalist soldiers to be imprisoned in Coventry, around 1648. The locals, who were parliamentary supporters, shunned them and refused to consort with them.

Michael Quinion also notes:-

Another story, undated but usually taken to refer to events of a similar period, is that Coventry was strongly opposed to having troops billeted on townspeople, and that soldiers sent there were ostracised by the local population.

but he remarks that

My own feeling is that neither is convincing, not least because of the century-long gap between Civil War events and the first appearance of the idiom

As neither of thes two things were peculiar to Coventry, I'm also inclined to doubt. Can anyone shed any light on the matter?

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OK, who was the [expletive deleted] who voted to close this as "general reference"? –  Marthaª May 9 '13 at 13:55

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

OED has a note

[The origin of the phrase has been the subject of numerous ingenious conjectures: see Brewer, Phrase and Fable, etc. A probable suggestion refers it to the circumstances recorded in quot. 1703; a less likely source has been suggested in quot. a1691.]

So they don't know the origin. The citations are:

[a1691 Baxter in Reliq. Baxt. i. i. (1696) 44 Thus when I was at Coventry the Religious part of my Neighbours at Kidderminster that would fain have lived quietly at home, were forced..to be gone, and to Coventry they came.
1703 Clarendon's Hist. Rebellion II. vi. 36 At Bromicham, a Town so generally wicked, that it had risen upon small parties of the Kings, and kill'd, or taken them Prisoners, and sent them to Coventry [then strongly held for the Parliament].]

Both quotations relate a physical sending to Coventry: in the first by driving out from Kidderminster (around 35 miles away); in the second by deporting prisoners there (also around 35 miles, if the place is now West Bromwich). They favour the second, which mirrors what you found in phrases.org.

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