In a Word: How Long Is a Quarantine?

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

It’s never a good time when the word quarantine starts to appear regularly in the daily news. In attempts to stymie the spread of the coronavirus, some quarantines have been put in place to contain people who have been exposed to the virus. But how long should a quarantine last? The coronavirus is believed to have an incubation period of 14 days, so 14 days without showing symptoms of infection has seemed a good guideline for quarantine length so far.

But there’s a specific length of time embedded in the word quarantine itself.

As far back as the fourteenth century, ships coming to Venetian ports from countries thought to be stricken by plague were ordered to remain off the coast for quarantina giorni — literally “a space of forty days”  — from the Latin quadriginta “forty.” Most who contracted the bubonic plague would have been killed by it within a week, but the extra time made sure there were no latent cases still aboard.

In French, this concept was called quarantaine, which was altered in English to quarantine, referring to any stretch of forced isolation for medical reasons, by the mid-1600s. But even before then, English law had the concept of a widow’s quarantine, referring to the time — again, often 40 days — that a recent widow was allowed to live on her dead husband’s estate rent-free. After that, the estate would be seized and distributed according to the law of the time.

These days, medical quarantines can last for any length of time, regardless of the word’s etymology. And the recognition of women’s sovereignty has made the widow’s quarantine more or less obsolete.

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