Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
40 Days of Solitude: The Origin Story of "Quarantine"
The word quarantine is is about as common as the sight of face masks these days.
Say it aloud, and it's a light, almost pretty-sounding word, in contrast to the seriousness of its meaning. Quarantine also lends itself well to all sort of puns: your quaranteam are the people you stay home with, quarantunes are the songs you write or listen to, and there's a whole new genre of corn teen memes based on mishearing quarantine. But where did the original word come from?
The first recorded appearance of the word quarantena is in 9th century Latin, referring to the desert where it is believed that Jesus fasted for 40 days. It comes from the Latin word for forty, quadraginta, and you can see the root quad- in there, meaning "four," which is still used in words like quadruple and quadrilateral. Quad- goes all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root kwetwer, which is the parent of words for "four" in dozens of languages from South Asia to Europe.
Quadraginta became quaranta in Italian and quarante in French, and both languages also modified quarantena accordingly, into quarantina and quarantaine respectively. In both Italian and French, it referred to a period of forty days: it applied to Lent and other periods of religious penance or fasting outside of the annual observance before Easter. In sixteenth-century British law, a quarantine was the forty-day period in which the widow of a landowner was allowed to remain in his house after his death while waiting for her inheritance.
Venice was a wealthy and powerful city-state in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and it built its fortunes on extensive trade with the near and far East. Beginning in the plague-ridden 14th century, Venice required the crews of ships from afflicted countries to remain at anchor offshore for forty days before docking in its port. This meaning of quarantina gave rise to the word we use today: a period of isolation to prevent the spread of contagious disease.
For a while, especially in the nineteenth century, quarantine also referred to the place where one was isolated, a bit of a return to that first Latin instance of quarantena describing the desert where the Bible says that Jesus secluded himself and fasted.
There are some famous cases of creativity during quarantine: Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Isaac Newton worked on his theories of optics and gravitation, and Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a book about people telling each other stories during, you guessed it, quarantine.
We're running down the origins of some pandemic-related words. Here are a few more: