Beyond Words - Language Blog

Etymology of "Quarantine"

The word quarantine — used in modern English to designate a period of time when a group of people or materials is isolated from its surroundings — has several cultural and semantic stories ascribed to it.

With the French quarantaine and the Italian quarantena we are plunged into nautical history. Beginning in the mid 17th-century, a quarantine was a period of time in which a ship suspected of carrying foreign disease or plague was kept in isolation. The Latin root quadraginta means “forty” — the approximate number of days that ships stood at European ports before allowed entry.

Other notable 40 day periods, or quarantines, include: Jesus Christ is said to have fasted in the desert for 40 days, and in the 16th century, widows were expected to stay home for 40 days after the death of their husbands.