THE AMATEUR WORD NERD QUIZ: Where does ‘quarantine’ come from?

By Barbara McAllister

Where does the word “quarantine” come from?
Is it…
A. A type of beverage
B. The bubonic plague
C. A place in France

Answer: B
Quarantine is a timely word that comes from Italian word for 40. It literally means 40 days, and is a period of isolation to prevent the spread of disease. Originally it was 30 days, or trentine. (A Starbuck’s trente is 30 ounces). The period was extended to allow more time for symptoms to develop. It started with the plague known as the Black Death, which swept through Europe in the 1300s and killed off nearly a third of the population. In an effort to stop the spread of disease, ships were put into isolation on nearby islands or required to stay anchored offshore before allowing anyone to land. Sound familiar?
Although the idea of a formal quarantine period started with the plague in Europe, the practice of separating healthy from diseased people has been around for a long time. The Old Testament refers to rules for isolating lepers. We now use the word quarantine to refer to the practice of restricting the movements for any period of time of people or animals who seem healthy, but who might have been exposed to a harmful disease that could spread to others. In the past, populations have been relatively isolated from each other. Only comparatively recently has there been extensive contact between people. Initially, new infectious diseases could spread only as fast and far as people could walk or ships could sail. With the advent of mass global travel, the current reach, volume and speed of travel are unprecedented. The fact that we can now travel around the world so quickly means our germs can as well.