Catching 40 winks. | Reuters

From time to time words we all know — and some we’ve never been aware of — are suddenly in the news and we see them every day as soon as we look at the front page of a newspaper or turn on the television news. These words usually burst into our lives because of some event of global impact.

That’s what’s been happening over the past few weeks with the coronavirus that has caused the death of tens of thousands of people and put more than half of the world under lockdown as well as leading to the destruction of a million jobs in Spain alone. The virus, with the scientific name of SARS-Cov2, causes death by the disease COVID-19. At the time of writing things will get worse before they get better, but there is a faint light at the end of a rather distant tunnel.

Apart from lockdown, two other words that get repeated a infinitum are ‘confinement’ and ‘quarantine’. In Spain and a few other countries, we’re all confined and have to stay at home to stop the virus and COVID-19 from spreading. Those who have proved positive for the disease are in quarantine and, in the better scenarios, live a completely solitary life isolated from the other members of their families. Highly contagious diseases have been with us since the earliest of recorded history and quarantine was used in Europe between 1348 and 1351 during the Black Death plague that killed a third of the world’s population. In biblical times lepers were put into quarantine in the surrounding woods, far from the rest of a town’s population.

There is also a legal definition of quarantine: the 40 days during which a widow was permitted to live in her husband’s house after his death. The woman gets the house nowadays but that wasn’t always the case.

The period of isolation in the earliest of times was 30 days and it was called a ‘trentina’. But at some point, no ancient document says when, the separation period was increased to 40 days and became known as a ‘quarantina’.

The number 40 is often used in idiomatic phrases in an apparently arbitrary way, and not just in English but also in Spanish, Mallorquín and French.

Spaniards say ‘cantar las cuarenta’ (literally, sing the forty), which means to tell someone in blunt words what you really think of him or her. When Majorcans want to use an exclamatory phrase they sometimes say ‘requoranta llamps’, which means 40 (or more) rays of lightning. When the French say ‘les quarante’ they are referring to the 40 members of the French Academy.

There is a touch of the esoteric in the word forty. It certainly keeps cropping up in the Bible: Jesus and Moses had 40-day periods of fasting and the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. The King James Bible has 22 references to 40 days but there are only seven instances of 30 days and three of 50 days. In the Roman Catholic Church, ’40 hours’ means the continuous exposition of the Host for 40 hours on occasions of special devotion. And Lent is the period of 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter Eve that is devoted to fasting and penitence in commemoration of Jesus’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.

English laws were also fond of the forty word. Legislators put a 40-day limit on the paying of a fine for manslaughter and, as I’ve already mentioned, a widow was allowed to remain in her husband’s house for 40 days after he died. And English weather folklore says that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day (July 15) it will rain for another 40 days. When we take a short nap we talk about having ’40 winks’. The earliest known use of this term was by novelist George Eliot (1819-1880) who wrote about ‘having 40 winks on the sofa in the library’.

But the word ‘wink’ has a much longer pedigree and goes back to the 13th century. We now think of ‘wink’ as the deliberate closure of one eye, but it used to mean the involuntary or deliberate closing of both eyes, what we would now call a ‘blink’. It also meant a brief spell of sleep, or a nap. One talked about ‘having a wink of sleep.’

For today’s time and motion men (and women) a wink is a unit of time equivalent to a 200th of minute.

The earliest writers used ‘forty’ to describe a large but indefinite number, quantity or degree. Shakespeare wrote, “I could beat 40 of them" and he twice uses ‘forty thousand’, a highly exaggerated term favoured by Elizabethan dramatists.

In Shakespeare’s time 40 pence was the usual amount for a large wager, and in the Arabian Nights Entertainments we meet Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. When people spoke of ‘The Forties’ they weren’t always referring to the decade: it was also a gang of British thieves in the 1870s.

But the ‘Forty Thieves’ was a famous class of 74-gun ship designed by Sir H. Peake. It is claimed they were ruined by Admiralty interference and eventually became the worst ships in the British Navy. The early 20th century term ‘with 40 pounds of steam behind him’ was a naval phrase applied to those who received an immediate posting. There was a good reason for using 40 in this expression: the safety valves on Navy ships went off at 40 pounds of pressure.

When servicemen spoke of a ‘forty eight’, they were referring to a 48-hour pass or leave. In the mid-19th century, ‘forty-jawed’ meant excessively talkative and ‘forty-lunged’ signified a person with a stentorian voice.

Those who were ‘forty-faced’, as in ‘forty-faced liar’ or ‘forty-faced flirt’, were given to arrogant and shameless deception.

In the late 19h century, ‘forty-rod’ was one of the terms used for illicit whisky sent from Montana into Canada. However, it was frequently just coloured pure alcohol watered down by retail vendors. Bad beer was the original ‘rot gut’ and ‘red-eye’ was rum for soldiers in the First World War.

A common term still in use is ’40 to the dozen’ which means something that is done very quickly. But when it concerns a person’s extremely fast way of talking, we now usually say ’19 to the dozen’.