The Etymology of Quarantine, A Short Film

With most of the world currently self-isolating, social distancing, and under quarantine, Jessica Oreck’s short film on the origin of the word “quarantine” is apropos of the moment. MYSTERIES OF VERNACULAR: QUARANTINE is a two-minute animated short produced by TED Ed. The film is animated by Jessica Oreck, narrated by Graham James, and is part of a lesson which Oreck and Rachael Teel created.

The word quarantine derives from the Italian quaranta, meaning 40, because the original quarantine period was 40 days. The word was coined in the context of the 14th century’s bubonic plague outbreak, which the film states killed an estimated one third of Europe’s population. The first quarantine mandate was applied to ships, which were told to stay at sea for weeks—until it was clear that those on board were no longer infectious—in order to limit community transmission of the disease. Such a measure poses certain problems, however. Nonhuman animals carrying the bacteria responsible for the plague—Yersinia pestis—could still make their way to land. There was also the terrible unintended consequence of sickening those healthy individuals on board because of close quarters.

Ships remain sites of quarantine today. As the SARS-CoV-2 virus began to spread in early 2020, cruise ships getting ready to dock were ordered to first quarantine at sea. Between February and March of this year, three cruise ships reported more than 800 confirmed COVID-19 cases, resulting in at least ten deaths. Cruise travel has now been deferred worldwide.