Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 15, 2020

Etymology in the News: Quarantine

After weeks of reading the word in news reports, it occurred to me to ask, “Where does the word ‘quarantine’ come from?”

I consulted — as I always do — with my highly educated, fellow etymology fan during lunch today.

Her first suggestion seemed likely: a Latinate root having to do with “quarters,” “room,” etc. Perhaps one confined to a specific space was confined to a room or house. We have Spanish casa, and a number of other language cognates related to quarter, quartiere, and so forth. That seemed plausible.

I’ll give you a moment to consider alternatives, because that’s not it. Take however long you need, and I’ll proceed.

(Clock ticks.)

Time’s up.

The explanation is actually more straightforward, related to the root word for “forty,” present in many Indo-European languages, not only the Romance languages.

Some of you smart and highly educated readers may have taken that tack, and you’re correct.

During the Black Death — the Bubonic Plague — of the 14th and 15th centuries, the city/empire of Venice imposed a requirement that all arriving ships and their crews remain isolated for forty days before unloading or disembarking. The object was to avoid having them bring ashore Yersina pestis, the Black Death.

In the Venetian dialect, the Italian for “forty days” — quaranta giorni — yielded quarantino.

As it happened, whether through serendipity or some studious attention by an unknown Venetian, the course of Yersinia pestis is about 37 days from infection to death. Thus, isolating ships for 40 days assured that any plague infections would run their course prior to anyone leaving a ship and entering the isolated, island community of Venice.

Here in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, we have a number of cruise ships now out of service, berthed until conditions are safer. Capable of holding from 4,000 to more than 5,000 people, passengers and crew, they’re sitting, waiting. Here, this afternoon, Star Princess, idling at the terminal. Nowhere to go. Quarantined, although the passengers have disembarked.

Star Princess Brad Nixon 7960 680

I hope everyone is doing their best to deal with the current circumstances surrounding the onslaught of COVID-19. Take care of one another and wash your hands.

© Brad Nixon 2020. I consulted the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford English Dictionary, but the most thorough explanation is courtesy of Wikipedia at this link.


  1. Great post 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Even the most stressful moments can still be opportunities to learn at least something.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We suspended the Persian ESL classes a few weeks ago, as fairly frequent travel between Australia and Iran/Afghanistan occurs in the families of our students. It broke our hearts to have to do it, but we are now very glad that we acted early.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well done, Bill. We look to you Aussies to be pillars of strength and resolve. Look out for everyone there, and let me know how to say, “Be safe” or something like that in Farsi, please.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I think the passengers were glad that they were allowed to leave the ship immediately, but not in 40 days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a confirmed Francophile, the French word for forty, quarante, actually did occur to me right off the bat. But I could take it no further.

    I have been thinking a lot about being ordered quarantined, or in self imposed lockdown, for quite awhile, since I’m over 65, even though I have no viral symptoms or known exposure.

    Today my concerns were confirmed, as California’s governor has called for all seniors over 65 to stay home in lockdown for the next 60 days. After reading that announcement I went to Target to buy milk and bread, but there was none. I have enough to last a week.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Similar stories everywhere, at least certainly here in southern California. This morning, no eggs, meat, frozen foods, rice, pasta or paper products in 2 stores I checked. I hope everyone gets stocked up soon so that the supply chain can catch up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Omg really? Sounds awful


      • Serious business, that plague. Exactly the same today.


  5. My wishes for you both to stay safe and well, and also, entertained, whatever the length of this quarantine works out to be.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Grazie, Stacy. That’s why there are books, walks in the neighborhood, the company of the one person I ever wanted to live with and — if it comes to that — dictionaries! All the best to you and all of yours.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Great, post 🌿

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Simple and beautiful history of this word!! thank you Brad!!

    Liked by 1 person

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