Why Do We Call Quarantine, Quarantine?

Quarantine. We have been hearing it all over the place these days, probably more often than we have ever had, and it got me wondering, where does the word even come from? Especially the fact that it resembles the word ‘quarter’ sounded interesting. And so I went in search of the answer.

First of all, let’s see what the dictionary had to say about the word origin:

“from Italian quarantina ‘forty days’, from quaranta ‘forty’”.

Hmm, forty. What’s so especial about forty?

To understand this, we need to go all the way back to one of the deadliest pandemics in history. The one that was carried by rats and fleas, started in 1343, and wiped out nearly a third of the European population. Not enough? Here is another hint:

Plague Doctor

Plague Doctor. Source: Wikipedia

That’s right, we’re going back to the plague pandemic, famously known as the Black Death. The disease hit Sicily, Italy, through trading ships and Mongol warriors in 1347. It was, then, only a matter of time before it reached France, Spain, Britain, Ireland, and other places in Europe through trading routes.

The spread was so rapid, and the death tolls were so high that the officials felt the need to establish control measures to prevent the spread. Now, one thing you need to know is that the practice of quarantine had actually been around for a long time, even before the Black Death. It goes as far back to the medieval Islamic world, when Avicenna, the famous Persian physiologist, recommended it for patients who had infectious diseases.

So, when Black Death hit Italy, similar practices were adopted as control measures. Officials in Regio, Italy, for example, decided that anyone affected by the plague should be taken out of the city and be left to either die or recover

Some other cities implemented similar laws where they would separate the affected from the rest. Now here is where things get interesting. One of these laws was passed by the port city of Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik in Croatia). The law stated that ships coming from areas affected by plague had to be isolated for 30 days, and if anyone broke the law and visited the ships, they too had to be isolated.

A view of the city of Malta, where ships perform quarantine. Source: wellcomecollection

This duration of 30 days gave the law its name, trentino, which comes from trenta meaning thirty in Italian. Other port cities such as Marseilles, Venice, Pisa, and Genoa adopted the same law. The duration of the isolation, however, changed to 40 days instead of 30 over the years, and the name changed to quarantino meaning a duration of forty days.

The reason why this change happened is unclear, but some historians believe that 40-day biblical events and religious references might have been the motive, and some believe that they just simply came to the conclusion that 30 days wasn’t long enough.

The first quarantine regulations and stations established in the U.S. dates back to 1799 after the outbreak of smallpox or yellow fever in Philadelphia, and the National Quarantine Act passed in 1878 which shifted quarantine powers to the federal government.

So there you have it! That’s the story of why we call quarantine, quarantine today. Hope you enjoyed this little history lesson and learned something new!

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2 Responses

  1. Hameed Hussain says:

    Dear Kimiya
    Thank you for writing this blog. I suggest you to visit Islamic history specially the life during Khaleefa Umar Bin Khattab. More specifically his visit to Syria during a plague.
    Please write a blog on how tge deadly diseases were dealt with.

    • Kimiya says:

      Hi Hameed,
      I’ll for sure look into itn. I tried to keep this blog short and straight to the point, that’s why I didn’t really talk about that. But that would be a great idea to write about for my next blog! Thanks for the suggestion!