Word Play – Epidemic and quarantine

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 21st. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. 

EICHER: Here now is George Grant with a coronavirus edition of Word Play.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: The Bubonic Plague was a scourge that ravaged the world’s population again and again from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The last wave of the epidemic swept through the city of London in the spring of 1665, with an estimated 100,000 fatalities. 

Once infected, the chances of surviving the plague were terrifyingly slim; most people, as Daniel Defoe recorded, were “immediately and violently overwhelmed” with it.

The spread of the coronavirus can hardly be compared with the much more deadly plague, but reading the daily entries of Samuel Pepys in his famous diary does afford fascinating parallels between then and now. 

Pepys was a member of Parliament and Chief Secretary of the Admiralty under King Charles II. He gained renown for his trenchant observations of everyday life in the 17th century.

The first recorded plague deaths in London were in March but for weeks Pepys was far more interested with the trade war England was waging with her European neighbors. But, by April he wrote that all the news at his local coffee-house was of the plague “and some of the remedies against it: some saying one thing and some another.” 

As the contagion spread the king and his court left the city for the safety of the countryside—as did most doctors, lawyers, and wealthy merchants. Parliament was suspended. Theaters and courts were closed. Sporting events were canceled. Trade at home and abroad was suspended. 

The Council of Scotland closed its border with England and, according to the Royal Archives, “people’s lives and businesses suffered terribly because so many were shut in their homes.” Pepys wrote, “Lord! How sad a sight to see the streets so empty.”

Apparently, it was at this time that two, now familiar terms, first came to be used by Pepys and others: epidemic and quarantine. Epidemic comes from the Greek epi meaning “upon” and demos meaning “people.” It meant “prevalence among the people,” referring to any trend or fashion. But, during the plague Pepys associated the word with the spread of infectious diseases. 

Likewise, quarantine comes from the Old French maritime term, quarante, meaning “40 days.” Pepys uses the word to describe a medical isolation of any kind or duration—thus, it was a neologism with the connotation we still use today.

The contagion eventually ran its course, London recovered robustly—at least for a year. Then came the Great Fire which swept through the city destroying more than 70,000 homes, nearly 100 churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most businesses. 

It was his account of the Great Fire that has made Pepys’ diary such a classic. But, rereading his account of the plague the previous year, I am reminded of its surprising relevance.

I’m George Grant.


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