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Not so fast: how ‘quarantine’ turned from prayer to isolation | Books

This week the government announced that the coronavirus outbreak was “a serious and imminent threat to public health”, and gave itself new powers to force English people who threatened to spread the disease into “mandatory isolation”. This is otherwise known as “quarantine”, but why?

It comes from the Latin (via French quarantaine) for 40 days, which was the length of time Jesus fasted in the wilderness, and so the period of Lent, as well as how long a widow could remain in her deceased husband’s house. In the 17th century it began to describe a precautionary period of isolation imposed on travellers to prevent them spreading disease, especially if they came from certain places. In 1663, Samuel Pepys wrote that ships from Amsterdam and Hamburg, where the plague was rife, had “to perform their quarantine” in Hole Haven on the Thames Estuary.

In that case the quarantine lasted only a month. “Contrary to the import of the word,” Pepys noted, “though in the general acceptation it signifies now the thing, not the time spent in doing it.” This will be of scant comfort to those trapped in Wuhan and wondering just how long their “40 days” will last.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.

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