In these exceptional times, this month’s words are never far from our thoughts. Not only do they dominate the news cycle, but they are an inescapable part of daily life: returning travellers are instructed to quarantine, parts of the world have imposed curfews, while almost all of us are being encouraged to isolate. Understandably, then, our readers may have a sense of information overload when it comes to our picks. But despite everything we read and hear in the news, some stories remain largely unreported: for instance, what do we know about the words themselves? Let’s step away from the current moment and delve into some history.
English speakers with knowledge of Latin languages such as French or Italian may have noticed the similarities between the word quarantine and these languages’ words for forty: French quarante, Italian quaranta, etc. Indeed, the Italian word quarantina, the immediate etymon of quarantine, literally means “a number of around forty”, often referring to a period of forty days.
The forty-day period, called quarentena in 9th-century ecclesiastical Latin, from the Classical Latin quadraginta (“forty”), has held a number of special meanings throughout history, starting with the Bible. Jesus is said to have fasted for forty days in the desert, giving rise to the Christian tradition of Lent, itself a period of forty days. Historically, the same amount of time has been customarily allocated for periods of penance, and, in some jurisdictions, it was the duration for which a widow was allowed to stay in her deceased husband’s residence.
It is perhaps with this historical significance in mind that the 15th-century Venetians decided that forty days was the right amount of time to make ships from plague-stricken countries wait offshore before their passengers could disembark in their city. This concept, called quarantina in Italian, entered English in the mid 17th century as quarantine, first as a noun, and then as a verb by the 1800s, referring to any period of isolation imposed upon returning travellers to prevent the spread of disease.
Much the same method is still practiced today in an effort to contain outbreaks. Quarantine may be advised for people (or animals) suspected of having come into contact with an illness, regardless of whether they have recently travelled or have actually been infected. Thankfully, though, fourteen—not forty—days, is usually considered to be enough.
Curfew comes from the Anglo-Norman coeverfu, itself from the medieval French covrir or couvrir “to cover” and feu “fire”. The relationship between the covering of fires and the contemporary sense of “restrictions on movement after dark” isn’t obvious, but the prevailing theory links it to laws imposed under William the Conqueror mandating that fires be covered by a certain time of night in order to prevent accidental conflagrations. The order to cover fires was typically given at 8 or 9 p.m. and was signalled by a ringing bell.
However, there is some doubt as to whether curfew was ever really used to describe these specific laws. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the earliest recorded occurrences of the word, from the Middle English of the early 13th century, simply referred to the ringing of a town or village’s evening bell. They make no mention of any fire-related regulations: the connection with the laws of William the Conqueror, although entirely plausible, might just be an educated guess.
In any case, the contemporary sense of curfew is demonstrably descended from the first recorded Middle English sense. Its usage was first extended to refer to any kind of civil restriction signalled by the ringing of a bell. By the 1800s, it referred specifically to restrictions on the movement of civilians, typically after dark. Such restrictions are, of course, no longer typical in most parts of the world, although governments sometimes impose them, at least theoretically, as a temporary emergency measure in an attempt to control situations of conflict, civil unrest or, in recent times, outbreaks of contagious illness.
For English speakers, the resemblance between the words isolate and island is weak as best. Save for two initial letters, these words don’t look or sound very much like each other at all. Italian speakers, on the other hand, would see an obvious connection for the respective words in their language: isola, meaning “island”, and isolare, meaning “to isolate”.
This similarity, much clearer in Italian than in English, is key to the history of isolate. The English verb is a back-formation of its own past participle, isolated, which was initially an adjective only. Isolated entered English via the French isolé by way of the Italian isolato, the past participle of isolare, meaning “to build separately, in the manner of an island”. Isolare is derived from the Italian word isola, itself descended from the Latin insula, both meaning, unsurprisingly, “island”.
Both the Italian word and its French counterpart were initially used in architectural contexts before they developed more general senses of separation or solitude. It is in this sense that isolé made its debut in English in the mid-18th century. Although the word was initially borrowed directly from French without any change in form, writers would occasionally add an Anglicized ‘d, suffix to it. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the following example from Sketches from Nature by G. Keate: “You see me the same isolé’d, un~connected creature I was then.”
Even after the fully anglicized form isolated became widespread, the word was still dismissed as foreign by some. In 1800, the British Critic proclaimed that the “affected, frenchified, and unnecessary” word would never truly be English.
Far from finding it unnecessary, English speakers must have concluded that the adjective isolated wasn’t enough: the back-formed verb first appeared in the 1800s, followed by the noun isolation in the 1830s. All three words have been widespread ever since, their connection to islands all but forgotten, although islands are, practically speaking, still an excellent means of isolation.