Querying the quarantine

The practice of isolating the healthy from the sick goes back thousands of years. The first recorded quarantine occurs in the Old Testament. It makes perfect sense to keep any life hazard at bay. The question is, for how long? The most obvious answer is clinical: for as long as the symptoms are visible. This has always been the general approach.

Quarantine has been a latent word in the Western vocabulary until the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2. Personally, I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone talk about quarantine before Wuhan and without referring to a historical epidemic. The word sounds odd in English, especially in its ‘-ing’ form. Quarantining?

Now quarantine is, alas, back on the menu, and we’re reminded that just like viruses and diseases, words also evolve.

The quarantine was born in Venice – in word, if not in deed – and applied to ships coming from abroad. Those suspected of having been exposed to a contagious disease were placed in isolation for 40 days. Quarantena was the Venetian form of the Florentine quarantina, meaning ‘a period of 40 days’. The latter form the word arrived in England by ship in the 1660s and found its place in the English vocab.

The first quarantine was not a state (as in to be placed in quarantine) or a place, but a period to allow the disease to incubate and strike, if need be, without spreading, or, alternatively, to allow the observance of a symptom-free period.

The word has evolved, by way of metonymy, to mean any kind of isolation in the context of a contagious disease or epidemic, however long the period may be. Those suspected of or diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 require a 2-week quarantine, and they needn’t be shipping or flying in to qualify. Locals thought to have contracted the virus are placed in quarantine.

It’s always easier to work with what we have than to come up with something new. A two-week quarantine may be called a ‘quatordicine’ from quatordici for 14 [days]. A word would rather inflate into a catachresis or metonymy than to let another one take its place. Not unlike bacteria and viruses.

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