• Continental Interpreting

Quarantine Is Not Your Typical English Word

Updated: Aug 26

Quarantine is one of the most frequently used words in the media these days, apart from COVID-19 and coronavirus.


Quarantine is also not your typical English word… and that’s because of its Latin and mostly Italian origin.


Let’s look at the history of the word and find out how it’s been used throughout history.


14th Century Italy

The Italian version of the term was first used in the 14th century when Italian ports took measures to prevent the entry of travelers from areas highly affected by the bubonic plague (also known as, the Black Death). Before establishing a 40-day isolation period, a 30-day isolation called a trentino, was established. This meant that people on board these ships would not be allowed into Italy until after 30 days. When the 30-day period was extended to 40 days, the term became quarantena.


The Etymology Explained

The original trentino came from the term for thirty in ancient Venitian, or trenta. When the period was extended to forty days, it became quarantena, which came from the term for forty, quaranta.


Post Black Death

The term quarantine became used as a term for a general instance in which a person must remain in isolation to prevent the spread of a disease. People around the world have been quarantined due to yellow fever, typhoid fever, SARS, among others. Today, the amount of days vary and are not necessarily 40-day periods.


Why 40?

The number 40 is something that the original 40-day quarantena shares with other famous periods in Italian cultures, among other cultures. Although a religion connection has not been confirmed, it’s a fact that in Catholic cultures like the Italian culture, the number 40 is one present in many Biblical references.

In fact, Lent, a Catholic holiday lasting 40-days, also shares similar etymology to the term for quarantine in Italian. The term for Lent is la Quaresima, and shares the root word for forty—symbolic for the amount of days Jesus Christ fasted in the desert. 

Once again, a religious connection is only a theory with this ancient term, although the connection come from the country that has been the capital of Roman Catholicism for two millennia.


Before Quarantine

The 14th century was not the first time people were isolated to prevent the spread of disease. Quarantine was just the first time a term became so popular and associated with a specific amount of time.

Read ways in which people were isolated to prevent disease on this PBS Nova article, before the word quarantine became popularized around the world.

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