To send to Coventry? and other expressions

  | James Innes

The English language has become the world’s lingua franca, and many of its expressions have passed into other tongues. However, there are some regional expressions that have not migrated beyond their local borders, and are obscure even to people living in other parts of England.

One exception is the phrase “to send to Coventry” which is universally used when talking about shunning people. One theory as to why the name of the city of Coventry is to tarnished dates back to the English Civil War. Then supporters of Parliament would routinely send Royalist prisoners to the Midlands city, where the inhabitants would routinely shun them. Journalist Fraser McAlpine has another theory. He posits that the phrase dates back to the reign of Henry III and the practice of hanging people from a covin tree outside the walls of the city’s castle. So “to send someone to Coventry might originally be a euphemistic way of saying they are going to be hanged”, said McAlpine.

Other expressions are more esoteric and local. Yorkshire folk might say someone “couldn’t stop a pig in a passage” to describe somebody as generally hopeless. The phrase appeared to have originated to describe people with bandy legs who couldn’t stop anything going between the gap, even something as big as a pig.

Meanwhile in Cornwall people will refer to somebody who is cold or sickly as “wisht as a winnard”. A winnard is the local name for the whinchat bird which migrates to warmer climes in the winter. The phrase thus means those that get left behind in the cold.

Perhaps the most bizarre expression comes from the English Midlands, where the appearance of rain clouds on the horizon will cause people to mutter “It’s looking a bit black over Bill’s mother”. There is some dispute as to who is the Bill in the expression. One theory is that it refers to William Shakespeare who originated from the area. However, the smart money is on Kaiser Wilhelm Ii, the German emperor during World War I. His foreign policy was regarded as changeable and stormy, just like the weather.

Anybody want to send to Coventry somebody who couldn’t stop a pig in a passage, looking wisht as a winnard while it gets a bit dark over Bill’s mother?   


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