IATE Term of the Week: Quarantine

IATE Quarantine

Back in 2014, Termcoord already published an article on the terms ‘ebola’ and ‘quarantine’. However, in light of recent developments, the term ‘quarantine’ is reprised as IATE Term of the Week.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quarantine refers to the separation and restriction of “the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick”. The word quarantine stems from the Italian phrase for forty days, quaranta giorni, which was eventually contracted to quarantina, a term which then found its way into other European languages.

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As the etymology of the term indicates, quarantine initially referred to an isolation period of forty days. This practice can be traced back to the plague outbreaks that haunted Europe throughout the 14th to 17th centuries. Specifically, in the 15th century, the Venetian State decreed that whenever a ship arrived in its harbour, crew and passengers had to stay isolated on board the ship for forty days. This allowed to ascertain whether the newcomers were carriers of the plague and hindered them from spreading it amongst the population.

Over time, quarantine came to describe a period of isolation without specific reference to ships nor to a certain number of days. For example, Mary Mallon (1869-1938) – an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever – spent a total of 23 years of her life in quarantine.

As quarantine can be said to infract upon the basic human right of freedom of movement, the decision to put an individual under quarantine must be grounded on scientific evidence. In February 2020, the WHO recommended that travellers with suspected Covid-19 exposure be put under quarantine. Said travellers must be given adequate shelter and food, be treated with dignity and respect, and be provided with appropriate medical treatment. The biggest quarantine in human history to date took place in Wuhan at the beginning of 2020 in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. 500 million people were put under quarantine. 

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), as of March 2020, it is mandatory to put all individuals who may have been exposed to Covid-19 under quarantine. Specifically, the affected individual is meant to stay at home. The recommended quarantine period is a minimum of 14 days. To ensure good mental health, the ECDC furthermore recommends that quarantined individuals make use of social media and technology to stay in touch with their social circle and keep physically active within their homes. 


Quarantine and Isolation. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention. Accessed 17 March 2020.

Quarantine. Wikipedia. Accessed 17 March 2020.

Mary Mallon. Wikipedia. Accessed 17 March 2020.

Key considerations for repatriation and quarantine of travellers in relation to the outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. WHO. Accessed 17 March 2020.

Leaflet: information on self-isolation and quarantine after exposure to COVID-19. European Centre for Disease and Prevention Control. Accessed 17 March 2020.

Edit imageBy Janna Mack. Born and raised in multilingual and multicultural Luxembourg, Janna speaks Luxembourgish, German, French, and English. She has degrees in Linguistics, Education, and Translation from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.