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The history of the word Quarantine

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In the last two years, each one of us has used the word Quarantine thousands of times. But have you wondered what the origin story behind the word is? 

I first heard the word probably in the early 2000s when the anti-virus installed in my machine prompted that some malicious file is in Quarantine and you’re safe. Naturally, I looked up the dictionary to understand the word. Yes, I still own a dictionary. However, the overuse of this word in recent times has made me look into the history of Quarantine. 

Quarantine is derived originally from the Italian word quarantena, which translates to ‘Forty’ in English. So, how does it evolve into the modern meaning of Quarantine? 

Venice, 1630, city was under attack from the Bubonic Plague. The eyewitness accounts state that the dead bodies were floating throughout the canals of the city back then. Venice lost Nearly 33% of the population. A total of 46,000 deaths. 

Unlike Italy of today, Venice back then had a separate government system, which had no relations with other major cities of Italy such as Milan or Rome. The unification of Italy happened some 200 years later by Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. But that’s a story for some other day.  

So Venice, a separate governance structure, was one of the wealthiest places in the world back then. It was a hub for trade between Europe and Asia. I mean, if Shakespeare writes about the city, it’s got to be something. 

The city’s architecture allowed the large ships to anchor at the ports and immediately transport goods into the city’s heart using the canals. In 1630, only a few cities can do that. Dublin, Manchester, and Liverpool were the few other cities that used the canal system heavily.

However, this system of trade through canals became the reason for its downfall. Historians believe that the infected rats, which came aboard foreign ships from Asia and other parts of Europe, were the reason for the plague. The canals helped these infected rats to spread across the city with ease. 

To stop the further spread of the Bubonic Plague, the authorities in the city created a mandate that all the ships coming to Venice are to stay anchored in the ports for a total of forty (40) days or Quarantena in Italian. This period of 40 days got coined as the Quarantena period. As the word spread across Italy and foreign nations alike, the period of isolation for medical reasons was therefore interchanged with quarantena, later termed as Quarantine.

The quarantine period helped the city of Venice to defeat the plague. However, by then, the plague ended, Venice was never the same. The world had already moved to a new trade destination, the city of Constantinople or, as it is known today, Istanbul. 

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