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Quarantine: A Familiar Word with Less Familiar Beginnings

Quarantine is a common word — its meaning is well-known, and there’s little dispute, if any, about the appropriate context for its use. But a deeper dive into the word’s etymology reveals origins that aren’t as solidified.

Merriam-Webster defines quarantine as the following:

1. A period of 40 days

2. A term during which a ship arriving in port and suspected of carrying contagious disease is held in isolation from shore

3. A restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease or pests

4. A state of enforced isolation

The last three definitions are most closely associated with the modern use of quarantine. But it’s the first, and least common, definition that holds the most significance.

Quarantine derives from the Latin word quadraginta, which means forty. In the early 15th century, quarentyne was used to describe the desert where Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting. By some accounts, quarantine can be traced back even further to the Proto-Indo-European word kweter, which means four. Kweter became obsolete, leaving behind the Latin word quattor, which somehow extended to become quadraginta.

The number 40 holds significant spiritual value — the period of Lent is observed for 40 days and 40 nights and involves abstaining from certain pleasures or foods to honor Christ’s 40-day fast. This, in the word’s truest essence, is considered a quarantine.

But the modern use as we know it started around the 1660s. Etymologists tie this version of the word to the Italian phrase quarantina giorni, which translates to “space of forty days”. Around this time, it was common practice to hold ships at ports of entry for 40 days, when arriving from plague-infected countries.

From there, it seems the definition stuck.

The first federal quarantine didn’t occur until 1878, as a response to yellow fever outbreaks. That quarantine laid the basis for today’s quarantine laws and policies. The Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, which is part of the CDC, hosts quarantine stations in major cities around the country, including Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Today, though you’re more likely to see a quarantine dramatized in a Hollywood film or TV show, it’s still a very real option to stop the spread of diseases like viral hemorrhagic fevers and tuberculosis.

Quarantines have even made global headlines in recent weeks. News broke on May 7 that China would increase its quarantine checks on imported logs and apples. And, on a more peculiar note, the tree planted by President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron may be quarantined for up to 2 years to avoid contaminating the White House lawn’s soil. There’s even news about a goat that has been quarantined for the last 4 years in Ontario. That goat, Sunshine, was recently cleared and saved from an untimely death.

Ultimately, there’s really no question about what a quarantine is or the purpose it serves. But a deeper look at its history reveals there’s more to the word than meets the eye.