Language Corner

‘Quarantine’: A history

May 19, 2020
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People have been home for many weeks now, under what some states call “shelter-in-place” orders, others call “stay-at-home” orders, and New York state calls “PAUSE.” No one term is better than another, though, as we’ve written, “shelter in place” has different interpretations depending on the situation.

Some people are also in “quarantine,” staying in one place and avoiding all contact with other people while they wait to see if they have COVID-19, or trying to recover from it without giving it to anyone else.

“Quarantine” has a long history and has had several meanings.

Originally, “quarantine” meant the place where Jesus went to fast for forty days. The Oxford English Dictionary traces that usage in English to 1470 or so. About fifty years later, the OED says, “quarantine” was used for “A period of forty days during which a widow who is entitled to a dower is supposed to be assigned her dower and has the right to remain in her deceased husband’s chief dwelling.” About 100 years after that, “quarantine” was “A period of forty days set aside or used for a specific purpose, as penance or service; a set of forty (days).”

Do you see the pattern? While those uses are now considered obsolete, they have one thing in common: forty days.

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People who speak French, Italian, or Latin are probably saying to themselves, “Hmmm. ‘qua…’” In those languages, “forty” is “quarante,” “quaranta,” and “quadraginta,” respectively.

The OED says “quarantine” is borrowed partly from French, partly from Latin. But the Italians (maybe) gave us the more modern usage during the Black Death, the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. That usage is, as Merriam-Webster puts it, “a restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease or pests.”

Though medical knowledge was still relatively primitive during and after the Black Death, it seemed obvious that the plague was being spread from person to person (and by rats). Fearing it was brought in by outsiders (sound familiar?) and trying to prevent the spread of leprosy and other communicable diseases, Venice ordered arriving ships to anchor in the harbor for 40 days.

Why forty days? Possibly because of the biblical implications: if Jesus could fast for forty days, if it could rain for forty days and forty nights, if the Israelites could wander in the desert for forty years, maybe forty was a magic number, and could appease the disease and the deity.

Or maybe the concept of “quarantine” came from the Croats. Dubrovnik ordered an isolation of arrivals in 1377 and built a place for them to do so, but visitors had to stay for only thirty days. Later, the Croats extended the isolation to forty days, when they called it “quarantine.”

Daniel Defoe discussed “quarantine” in A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the Great Plague of London in 1665 attributed to “a citizen who continued all the while in London.” (Defoe was born only five years earlier, so it’s questionable whether he is the citizen or he repeated the accounts of someone else.)

In 1722, Defoe used “quarantine” to mean a forty-day period of isolation. In the Gutenberg Project edition, which modernizes Defoe’s spelling, he wrote: “Why else do they exact a quarantine of those who came into their harbours and ports from suspected places? Forty days is, one would think, too long for nature to struggle with such an enemy as this, and not conquer it or yield to it.”

But later, he seems to wonder whether that was long enough. “Either the distemper did not come immediately by contagion from body to body, or, if it did, then a body may be capable to continue infected without the disease discovering itself many days, nay, weeks together; even not a quarantine of days only, but soixantine; not only forty days, but sixty days or longer.”

We are still struggling with those questions. How long should a “quarantine” last? For COVID-19, fourteen days seems to be the current prescription.

The verb “to quarantine” arrived around 1804, the OED says, as a transitive verb meaning “To isolate or confine (a person), frequently as a punishment; to isolate (a nation) politically, economically, etc.; to boycott, isolate, or insulate (an event, issue, etc.)” as “quarantine” gained meanings unrelated to disease.

The OED traces the first political use of the noun “quarantine” to 1891, in a New York Times account of a disruption of relations between France and Bulgaria (though the Times was quoting Le Temps, a Parisian newspaper): “When a great power establishes diplomatic quarantine against them it is well not to go too far on a course on which they appear to be embarking with a light heart.”

Speaking of a light heart, and Defoe, let us end with this delightful paean to Defoe, written by Mary Norris, a former copy editor with The New Yorker. As she and Defoe write, “And I rejoice that I have recorded these things, however short and imperfect.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.