Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


WHAT WITH the Coronavirus being battled around the world, the word “quarantine” is much in the news these days. Quarantine comes from the Italian, quaranta giorni, 40 days, the enforced isolation of ships arriving in 14th-century Venice during a plague epidemic.

The Grand Lagoon of Venice, c. 1350. Image from Historia Sanitaria.

But why an isolation of 40 days, not 30 or 50? And why spell four times ten “forty,” not “fourty”? Here are tidbits from a variety of sources describing cultural appearances of four groups of ten.

The Bible. In the Judaic/Christian/Muslim tradition, the number 40 need not be taken literally, it just means “a lot.” Noah’s rainstorm “fell on the earth forty days and nights.” Moses was “on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” Jonah cried out, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Christ fasted in the Judean wilderness for “forty days and forty nights.” After His resurrection, He appeared to His disciples over a span “of forty days.”

Jonah preaches to the Ninevites. Illustration by Gustave Doré.

According to, the word “forty” appears 156 times in the Bible.

Forty or Fourty. WordAgents asks, “After all, ‘fourteen’ and ‘fourth’ have a ‘U.’ So why wouldn’t forty have one too?”

Forty, WordAgents says, “comes from the Old English word feower for four and tig for a group of ten to feowertig.

By Middle English, it was spelled “fourty.” Free-style spelling being what it was, by the 16th century, “forty” started appearing.

For example, in Henry VIII, 1613, Shakespeare (or was that Shackper?) had an Old Lady ask Anne, “How tastes it? is it bitter? forty pence, no.”

According to A.L. Rowse’s The Annotated Shakespeare: The Comedies, Histories, Sonnets and Other Poems, Tragedies and Romances Complete, forty had taken a diminishment of value: Forty pence is described as “Proverbial for a small bet.”

In Other Literature. “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” is a folk tale later added to One Thousand and One Nights, a collection compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, the 8th to 14th century A.D. Ali Baba’s encounter became part of the collected tales only in the 18th century.

Ali Baba presents Morgiana with treasures from the magical cave of Sesame. Illustration by Albert Robida.

Not unlike Biblical days, “The Forty Thieves” meant a lot of thieves, just as the “Thousand and One Nights” described a great many nights. This theme of extended story-telling is a charming one dating back to second-millennium B.C. Sanskrit: A wise young lady maintains the king’s favor by conjuring up yet more tales to entertain him.

Some Forty Tidbits. Branden Specktor compiled in Reader’s Digest “Bizarre Factoids About the Number 40 You Never Knew.” Here’s a selection:

Forty is the only number in English whose letters appear in alphabetical order.

This and the following image from Reader’s Digest.

For those confused about Fahrenheit versus Celsius temperatures, -40 degrees, “40 below,” is the only temperature that’s the same on both scales. As an algebraic aside, you could solve for x: 5/9(x – 32) = 9x/5 + 32.

The popular WD-40 lubricant gets its name from being its company’s 40th attempt at optimzing the product’s water displacing capability.

A typical human pregnancy lasts 40 weeks. This is just a bit longer than nine months and, as many a mother would likely say, “that’s a lot of weeks.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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