French language notes: quarantaine

On the lookout for the quarantine idiosyncrasy

21 March 2020
By Connexion journalist

Since the outbreak of the respiratory illness COVID-19 – now better known as coronavirus – many people around the world have been forced into quarantine while medical checks are carried out to verify their health status and prevent spread.

With many of those still (as we go to press) quarantined on cruise ships, there is a little irony in the fact that the origins of the word ‘quarantine’ came from 14th century when ships suspected of carrying disease (the Black Death, which killed millions in Europe) were kept in isolation.

The Italians were the first to impose the isolation period of quarantina giorni, or forty days, at the port of Venice (which, again ironically, is where some deaths due to coronavirus were identified).

Today, the number of days’ isolation is not restricted to forty, of course – discretion is used by affected nations.

And cruise liners do not have to fly the twin flags of doom – yellow and black, signifying disease and death – known as LIMA.

In French the word for quarantine is very similar, unsurprising given its Latin origins: la quarantaine. However, the word in French has another meaning – one which, confusingly, contradicts the original’s very specific reference to ‘forty’.

As with ‘une demi-dizaine’ (half a dozen), ‘une dizaine’ (a dozen, or ‘ten or so’), ‘une vingtaine’, (about twenty), ‘une trentaine’, (about thirty), and so on for multiple of ten you wish, une quarantaine means ‘about forty’ – a rough estimation.

So you might, in a strange quirk of the times, read a newspaper article or hear an item on the radio referring to “about forty people in quarantine”: “une quarantaine de personnes en quarantaine”.

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