As the dreadful story of the Ebola virus in Africa unfolds, and with it the parallel story of the panicked response to Ebola in the U.S., the word quarantine is much in the news. The stories explain that the quarantine for Ebola is 21 days. But now look at NOAD2 on the word:

quarantine noun  a state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed: many animals die in quarantine.

verb [with obj.] impose such isolation on (a person, animal, or place); put in quarantine.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Italian quarantina ‘forty days,’ from quaranta ‘forty.’

and note the origin, involving the Italian word for ‘forty’. We have here a straightforward case in which morphological material from the etymological source is still visible in the word, yet its current use no longer respects the semantics of the source. I’ll call such words decimators, after one famous English example that has led peevers to seethe in word rage at an offense to etymology.

If you take etymology dead seriously, then referring to a 21-day isolation period as a quarantine is just wrong.

Why forty? From Wikipedia:

The word comes from the Italian (seventeenth-century Venetian) quaranta, meaning forty, which is the number of days ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Death plague epidemic.

(The signal flag “Lima”, called the “Yellow Jack”, which was flown in harbor to mean a ship was under quarantine.)

[Digression on my childhood experience of quarantine, involving scarlet fever:

Scarlet fever (also called scarlatina in older literature) is an infectious disease which most commonly affects children. Symptoms include sore throat, fever and a characteristic red rash. Scarlet fever is usually spread by inhalation. There is no vaccine, but the disease is effectively treated with antibiotics. Most of the clinical features are caused by erythrogenic toxin, a substance produced by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus) when it is infected by a certain bacteriophage.

Before the availability of antibiotics, scarlet fever was a major cause of death. It also sometimes caused late complications, such as glomerulonephritis and endocarditis leading to heart valve disease, all of which were protracted and often fatal afflictions at the time. (Wikipedia link)

I don’t know how I contracted scarlet fever, but my entire household was quarantined behind a cordon of ominous yellow tape. I could talk to my friends only at a considerable distance. My parents had to manage a business by telephone. And many of my belongings were incinerated — notably, my stuffed animals, including Bunny, my beloved confidant. (I never had another stuffed animal in childhood. I think the next was a small stuffed Princeton tiger, then stuffed versions of my totem animals, the penguin and the woolly mammoth, and of course Rainbow Bear, with his gay-rainbow sweater.)

The period of isolation was certainly less than forty days (until antibiotics could kick in), but tedious nonetheless.]

Now, decimators. The name comes from the verb to decimate and its derived noun decimation. As I wrote in a 6/3/09 posting, the OED gives the source:

Milit. To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): a practice in the ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times.

In English, the verb quickly developed the sense ‘devastate’ (roughly; devastate and decimate are not quite perfect synonyms) — some time ago (details in my posting and in the links there), and this has been its sense since then, despite

the widespread passion with which the usage is condemned.  It’s an enduring peeve fashion (with a longer history even than speaker-oriented “hopefully”).

The objectors maintain that because the word has the visible traces of Latin decem ‘ten’ in it, it can used only to mean ‘reduce in number or extent by one-tenth’ (a sense that, frankly, most people have little occasion to use).

One response was from Michael Quinion, who

approached things cautiously and ended up suggesting that the verb best be avoided entirely (because it had been contaminated — “skunked”, in Bryan Garner’s terminology — by the loons who insist that ‘reduce by one-tenth’ is the one and only true meaning of the word).

I see this as giving in to the pig-headedly deluded, just letting the crazies win. I’ll go on happily using decimate ‘devastate’ and quarantine ‘(period of) isolation’ (of whatever length) and, for that matter, gym(nasium) ‘exercise facility, fitness center, health club’ — despite its source in the Greek adjective γυμνός (gymnos) ‘naked’ and its use in ancient Greece for

a training facility for competitors in public games. It was also a place for socializing and engaging in intellectual pursuits… Athletes competed nude, a practice said to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body and a tribute to the gods.(Wikipedia link)

To use the facility, you had to be a young man over the age of 18, and you trained naked. Gymnasia these days admit women as well as men, no one works out naked, and few of them serve as venues for intellectual pursuits. But if you take etymology dead seriously, you’ll insist on nudity at the gym; otherwise it’s an offense against the language to call the facility a gymnasium.

Yes, it’s all silly, just as silly as other instances of the etymological fallacy that don’t happen to involve morphological traces of history within the words in question. Insisting that etymology is destiny makes no more sense for decimators than it does for simpler cases; nice doesn’t “really mean” ‘ignorant’, nor does silly “really mean” blessed’, and so on.

5 Responses to “Quarantine”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Gymno- has certainly has had a complex history. Many scientific words preserve the original meaning (like ‘gymnosperm’). In English the word evolved into denoting a large public facility where people watch basketball, or exercise with clink and clank machines.

    In German das Gymnasium (plural Gymnasien, for some reason, the student is a Gymnasiast) is an academically oriented high school.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Jason Parker-Burlingham on Facebook:

    For some time now I have been fond of pointing out “October isn’t the eighth month” to take the wind out of folks who like to argue from etymology.

    September, October, November, and December are all “mis-named” from an etymological point of view. Historically, the problem was the insertion of July and August (named after Caesars) into the calendar, so that the last four months are off by 2 from an etymological point of view.

    • fundlaw Says:

      The last sentence of this is commonly believed, but untrue. Originally the Roman year started in March and had only ten named months, plus an unnamed winter period. When January and February were added, and the year’s beginning moved to January, the old names were unchanged. Subsequently, Julius Caesar changed Quintilis to July, and Augustus changed Sextilis to August.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        Thanks for the correction. Nevertheless, the calendar changes resulted in a disparity between the morphological elements and the position of months in the year.

  3. Ben Zimmer Says:

    Coincidentally, my latest Wall Street Journal column is on the history of quarantine.

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