It’s Day 40 of the lockdown in Spain. A third extension to the original state of emergency was approved in Congress yesterday, which takes us to 00:00h on Sunday, May 10th. The Spanish prime minister’s proposal received 269 votes in favour; 60 against, and 16 abstentions. I am not even going to think about whether this may be the final extension.
Instead, realising that we’d reached the 40th day of this current situation, I distracted myself by diving into the Reader’s Digest Wordpower Dictionary. This weighty tome makes an occasional efficient doorstep, in our grandly named ‘library’ (where I write), to prevent the French windows blowing shut; there always seems to be a breeze here in our rural Mallorcan valley.
But the book’s real purpose is to fill any wordsmith with wonder and a sense that curiosity has been satisfied. It’s a fascinating book to dip into when a few spare minutes present themselves to be filled.
Q is for Quarantine
I knew that the word ‘quarantine’ came from the Italian quarantino (which means ‘forty days’; quaranta being Italian – and, indeed, Catalan – for ‘forty’). As many people are in quarantine now because they have symptoms of COVID-19 – or have come into contact with someone who has the virus – it seemed fitting to delve a little deeper into the word’s history.
The Reader’s Digest Wordpower Dictionary told me that originally the word denoted a period of 40 days during which a widow – with entitlement to a share of her deceased husband’s estate – had the right to remain in his house. (Not sure what the poor woman did after the 40 days were up). According to a bit of legalese from 1628, if said widow remarried within the 40 days (which would be indecently hasty, IMHO), she would lose this right.
The word ‘quarantine’ in English has had its current meaning since the 17th century and, in 1663, none other than Mr Pepys referred to it in his famous diary, as a 30-day period. From then on, the word became used to describe a state of isolation, rather than a specific length of time – which would vary depending on the disease in question. Fascinating.
No Time for Boredom
‘Time to get on with some writing now,’ I told myself, replacing the book on the shelf above my desk until my next bout of etymological curiosity.
I wouldn’t want you to think that The Boss and I were twiddling our thumbs here, with nothing to do during this lockdown period. There are (still) rooms to be decorated, terraces to be cleaned, and garden furniture to be brought out of hibernation. And it’s World Book Day today, which demands that I spend some time reading a book – as well as writing one.
Jan Edwards ©2020