Sent to Coventry (with Captain Boycott and Peeping Tom)

I’ve often wondered about this expression: to send someone to Coventry. It’s a little old-fashioned, so you may not have heard of it. It means to deliberately ostracise someone, by ignoring them, refusing to talk to them. The obvious question about this phrase is: why Coventry?

I’ve never been there, but I’m sure it’s a fine city. It’s certainly got a fine cathedral. Being sent to Coventry can’t be that bad, can it? Nowadays, no, but during the English Civil War it might have been a little different if you were a Royalist.

Some suggest that the expression is from this period, when Royalist prisoners would be taken to Coventry, a Parliamentarian stronghold, where they would receive a far-from-friendly welcome.

Others think the phrase may relate to a law passed by Charles II which, basically, specificed the death penalty for cutting (off) the tongue, nose, eyes, ears, or lips of anyone, which was named the Coventry Act, after Sir John Coventry MP, who had his nose grievously sliced by attackers.

Still more think that the phrase is related to another unusual English-language one: Peeping Tom. Used now to refer to a voyeur, the term is derived from the legend of Lady Godiva. She was a real 11th- century English noblewoman who according to legend, rode naked through Coventry. Only one person dared to look at her, Peeping Tom, and he was struck either blind or dead for his troubles. Some versions of the story suggest that he was merely ostracised though, and this is the origin of to send someone to Coventry.

To be honest, only the first one sounds really plausible, but we might never know the origin of the phrase for sure.

What I do know for sure is where I first came across the expression, and it’s linked with an interesting English word. It was during a history lesson in secondary school focused on the Irish Land War of the late 19th century. This was a period of agitation by tenant farmers seeking to redistribute land to tenants from wealthly landlords, especially absentee landlords. One of the most famous political figures of the time in Ireland was Charles Stewart Parnell MP, who campaigned for Irish home rule. In a speech in the town of Ennis in 1880, he asked the crowd what they should do to a farmer who bought the farm of an evicted farmer. Some members of the crowd suggesting killing or shooting, to which Parnell responded:

I wish to point out to you a very much better way – a more Christian and charitable way, which will give the lost man an opportunity of repenting. When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him – you must shun him in the streets of the town – you must shun him in the shop – you must shun him on the fair green and in the market place, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old – you must show him your detestation of the crime he committed.

That idea of a moral Coventry seemed to have stuck in his supporters’ minds. A notorious figure at the time was the Englishman Charles Boycott, land agent for Lord Erne in County Mayo. When members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and a process server attempted to serve Boycott’s eviction notices for tenant farmers three days after Parnell’s speech, one woman refused to accept the notice, and neighbours threw stones and manure to drive the police and process server away. All of Boycott’s servants and employees left his service (some say through sympathy, others through persuasion or intimidation), and soon many local tradesmen and craftsmen in the town of Ballinrobe refused to serve him.

The poor chap wrote a letter to the Times complaining of his plight, which garnered a lot of sympathetic coverage by British journalists who portrayed him as a victim of Irish nationalism. Relief funds were set up, and 50 Orangemen travelled from the north of Ireland to harvest his crop. The cost to the British government was estimated at about £10,000, for a crop worth a few hundred pounds. But who ever said imperialism was logical?

Boycott became a verb very quickly. It’s believed to have been coined by local Land League leader Fr. O’Malley, who wanted a term specifically for the ostracisation of a landlord or land agent, as ostracisation wouldn’t be familiar to many peasant farmers. From this local use, the word quickly entered the English language, where it continues to do great work to this very day.

It’s a fine example of some of the great things about the origins of English words and expressions: coming from very small-scale origins, but spreading worldwide as it fills a niche no-one had previously known needed to be filled. Plus, its origins are much clear than to send someone to Coventry!

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