The origin of the word “Quarantine”

Posted by in At sea

Definition: Interdiction of communication to which a ship is subject for a definite period, for fear of her bringing infectious diseases.

During the 14th century, trading with ships increased and it brought, amongst many exotic new products, also the plague to Europe. Venice was at the time a very important center of power and commerce and therefore also heavily affected by the Black Death. The rats, bearer of the decease, felt right at home in the channels of the city on the water.

In order to get the situation under control, around Italy worlds first quarantine laws were established keeping ships from entering port for initially 30 days. The period was later extended to 40 days. The original documents for these laws still exist in archives in Dubrovnik which was back in the time known as Ragusa.

The Venetian dialect words Quaranta Giomi stand at the origin of the word Quarantine, 40 days being the time believed necessary for the plague to develop visible symptoms and to determine an infection.

Nowadays the word is often used where strictly speaking the word “separation” would be more appropriate. Quarantine, being a certain period to assess if someone is not infected and separation the act of isolation of somebody or something where contamination is a fact. Despite this clear difference, its application is not anymore reserved to shipping alone but rather common for the detention of persons, animals and goods entering a state overland or through the air.

Historically a simple yellow flag was flown to indicate a ship being under quarantine, today however it stands for the request of a health inspection and quarantined ships fly the signal flag Lima.

This article is part of a small series of words whom’s origin leads back to shipping. Click the Etymology button below to find all related articles of the series.

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