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Being sent to Coventry! – Headmaster’s Blog – Wednesday 15 November 2017

November 15, 2017

Being sent to Coventry!

The idiom above must be one of the strangest of English expressions. ‘Mr Google’ explains it has obscure origins – perhaps from the English Civil War where Royalist prisoners were taken to Parliamentarian Coventry or even an expression relating to being hanged from a tree in Henry III’s reign! Whatever its origin, the meaning is usually clear: to send someone to Coventry is to shun them and to refuse to acknowledge their presence.

On being sent to Coventry

I was ‘sent to Coventry’ recently but, I hasten to add, to the city and not to where I was ostracised. I attended the Independent Schools Association (ISA) Autumn conference and went to a fascinating seminar by the charity ‘Winston’s Wish’ which also tackled head on some of our more unhelpful English idioms.

This charity seeks to help young people who have been bereaved. This might be the loss of a loved one (there’s a strange expression – loss to mean death), the effect of someone passing away (here we go again) in their school or locality or even the news of some celebrity who has committed suicide (and once again we use an idiom – ‘committed’ – to soften the blow).

Using euphemisms – updated advice

I had always thought that using euphemisms or idioms when talking with young people – anyone actually – about death was helpful and sensitive. Whilst this might be an approach with an adult, it is not what we should do with children. A young child who has been told that ‘Daddy has gone to heaven’ might reasonably confuse this word and be upset when mummy drives through the county to Cornwall without stopping to see Daddy in Devon.

Whilst this example may seem trite – but does happen – the following expressions are more common and equally misleading, possibly unhelpful.

  • ‘Grandad has died in his sleep’ can raise a fear of going to bed at night.
  • ‘Your Aunt has had a stroke’ can be very confusing: the child may have just stroked a pet…
  • To tell a child that a relative has been ‘lost’ naturally gives rise to the request, ‘Can we go and find him?’

Talking sensitively but directly

So, how should we talk about something as distressing as the death of a loved one without being too blunt? ‘Winston’s Wish’ encourages a sensitive but direct approach:

‘Grandad has died…do you understand what this means? The doctor says he had a heart attack…this doesn’t mean anyone has hit him but, sadly, his heart has stopped working…’

(and so on – slowly, carefully, honestly and with a listening ear).

Idioms and their origins can be interesting but I for one, as I return from being ‘sent’ to Coventry, will endeavour to be more careful if, very sadly, I find myself talking with a young person about someone ‘falling off his perch ‘ (and here I go again!).

Alastair Reid (Headmaster)

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