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Poor old Coventry

Posted on 19 August 2017 by James Cowan in English language

I recently had the experience of trying to explain being "sent to Coventry" to my daughter, and was almost immediately out of my depth. I simply had no idea whence it came. I knew that during the Wars of the Roses, which was a to-and-fro between two major houses with pretensions to the English throne in the back half of the 1400s, culminating in the accession of the Tudors to the throne in 1485, every time Coventry was threatened or besieged, they picked the wrong side to swear allegiance to, and thus did not do well from the accumulated unrest. Inspired guess, plausible, but, of course, wrong. I checked with Google, and I found that it may or may not have had something to do with the English Civil War (the phrase apparently first appeared in writing in 1647). Wherever (or whenever), it seems to be an unofficial Army disciplinary process whereby someone whose offence does not justify a court martial is treated as if they did not exist, ignored, not spoken to, and so on – even possibly to being not served in the mess! Not all that pleasant, but only temporary – restitution or penance apparently induced redemption. (Certainly not a reference to Coventry's Ring Road, which seems to have on-ramps but no accessible off-ramps, a sort of late-twentieth-century purgatory!)

And thinking of phrases that are misused, or at best misapplied, I have noted recently that some international sports teams have a final training session before the start of an international match called a "captain's run" or a "captain's hit-out". What I am finding incongruous is the sports to which these terms are being applied. One seems nowadays to "hit" in Rugby (which is against a number of the rules), and to "run" in cricket. Whereas cricket consists largely of someone hitting a ball with a bat (and other people running after it), so "captain's run" is moderately appropriate, Rugby consists of throwing or kicking a ball and running after it. I can't help but wonder why the terminology was swapped ...

I am placing this comment here, rather than among the "Troubling phrases", because it is about something I have not (so far) seen, merely heard. TV newsreaders have until extremely lately given viewers a warning of "graphic images" when about to display film of the aftermath of a bombing or other disaster. Aren't all images "graphic"? Certainly Oxford seems to think so – and they only confirm what I have long thought. And when one copies an image (photograph, art, bit map) into Word, it talks of that image as "a graphic". So in TV terms, pictures without blood and / or bodies are not graphic, but with, they are? Strange. However, I have noted in the last few weeks that in NZ they now warn of "potentially distressing" images. Much better.

When, in the late 18th century (the 1780s), the French peasantry were protesting the price of bread, Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have commented "Let them eat cake". In her day it did not mean a sponge with icing sugar on top and cream and jam in the middle. At that time, bread was cooked in ovens fired by wood or bracken, essentially on a flat plate over an open fire, and the bread itself was not in neat rectangular tins as we are used to nowadays. Bread was put into the oven in a blob, and baked until it cooked. Depending on the consistency of the dough, it may sometimes have overflowed the metal plate and fallen to the ashes below; this was called "cake", and was unfit for the aristocracy to eat. Fit enough for peasants though.


Comment from Mark Garrett:I was always told that in WWII the Germans were on a bombing raid to drop on London, London was in black out and they hit Coventry instead. If someone said they were sending you to Coventry it meant you had no friends.

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