I'll Have a Quarantini; Better Make That 40

By Rob Kyff

June 2, 2021 3 min read

As many of us have discovered during the past year, being in quarantine can really do a number on you. But did you know the word "quarantine" actually contains a number?

During the 1300s, officials of Italian ports, such as Genoa and Venice, feared that sailors on ships entering their harbors might be infected with the Black Plague. So, they required all vessels to wait offshore for 40 days to make sure no symptoms emerged among their crews.

Because the Italian word for "forty" was "quaranta," the Italians referred to this period of isolation as a "quarantena." This word soon entered English as "quarantine," a general term for any period of forced isolation.

Let's look at three other words that harbor hidden numbers.

— "Trivia": This word for unimportant matters, derived from the Latin prefix "tri-" (three), has two separate but parallel origins.

The Latin word "trivium," a combination of "tri-" and "via" (road), meant "a place where three roads meet, a crossroads." Because a crossroads is a place where people pause to discuss everyday matters, e.g., baseball, weather, the Kardashians, the adjective form of "trivium" ("trivialis") came to mean "commonplace, ordinary."

Meanwhile, in Late Latin, "trivium" meant simply "something with three parts." Thus, the three basic subjects of the classical curriculum: grammar, rhetoric and logic — were called the "trivium." (The four higher branches — arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy — were called the "quadrivium.")

So, the current meaning of "trivia" in English was shaped by both meanings: "everyday" (subjects discussed at the crossroads) and "less important" (lower-level subjects of the classical curriculum).

— "Twilight": This term for the period when the sun is below the horizon but the sky is still illuminated derives from the Old English word "twi," meaning "half, two or between." So "twilight" is the time "between" daylight and complete darkness.

Fun fact from the Twilight Zone: Though "twilight" most often refers to the period just after sunset, it can also denote the time just before sunrise.

— "Diploma": In ancient Greek, the prefix "di-" meant "two," and "diploos" meant "double." Thus, because licenses or other official papers were often folded over, the Greeks called such a document a "diploma." After English adopted this word in the 1600s, its meaning soon narrowed to "a certificate of graduation from high school or college."

Simply by reading this column, you've now earned a diploma in trivia!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: 851878 at Pixabay

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