Etymology excavation: Quarantine

Quarantine as we know it today comes from the C15th Venetian word ‘quarantena’, and meant ‘forty’. Forty days was the required isolation period for ships before they were allowed to off-load in Venice or ports controlled by Venice during the outbreak of the Black Plague.

Essentially, if no one showed any signs of any infectious diseases after that 40-day period, Venetian officials would give them their certificate and let them disembark. If infection broke out, it would run its course shipboard, and any survivors who made it 40 days from the end of the outbreak with no further signs were then considered clear.

Even today, ships waiting for Customs clearance in a new harbour will fly a solid yellow flag (the ‘Q’ flag), which is basically a self-declaration that they have no infectious diseases aboard and are safe for Customs agents to board and clear. A ‘Yellow Jack’ flag, with alternating black and yellow quarters, means the opposite – the ship has an infection aboard and is under quarantine.

Venice was not the first example of an established quarantine system. There are documented examples of it going back as far as the 7th or 8th centuries in India and the Middle East. A lot of these earlier quarantine systems were fairly ruthless in their application, and more or less consisted of running the sick or those suspected of being sick out of town to live or die well away from other people.

The root of the word ‘quarantena’ goes back even further, to Proto-Indo-European ‘kwetwer’, or ‘four’, with offshoots in languages from French to Gaelic to Persian to Latin.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

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