Isolated: placed or standing apart or alone; detached or separate from other things or persons; unconnected with anything else; solitary

Dominic Cummings

To protect others, you must stay at home if you or someone you live with has symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19).
This is called self-isolation.

UK National Health Service, Self-Isolation Advice (2020)

During the Current Unpleasantness, people all around the world have become acquainted with the concept of “self-isolation”—an infected person’s duty to break the epidemic’s chain of infection by voluntarily withdrawing from all external contacts with other people. For those of us in the UK, that concept has become particularly salient over the last few days, as we have been amused/entertained/irritated/outraged* by the unfolding saga of the self-isolation of a senior government adviser, Dominic Cummings, which involved a rather unusual amount of travel. Who’d have guessed, as Covid-19 lock-down restrictions slowly eased, that the national conversation would be largely taken up by speculation on the bladder capacity of four-year-old children on long car journeys, or the advisability of testing your vision by taking your wife and child out for a drive?

Isolated and isolation come to us from the French verb isoler, “to isolate”. The French formed an adjective, isolé, and a noun, isolation, from that verb; both were at first adopted into English unchanged, but the intrusively French isolé evolved first into the awkward isolé’d and was finally fully Anglicized as isolated during the eighteenth century, albeit against stiff resistance. An anonymous reviewer of the book Morality United With Policy by Robert Fellowes, writing for the conservative magazine The British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review in October 1800 opined:

In point of language, we have little to object to Mr. F. but we must tell him, as we have told many others, that the affected, frenchified, unnecessary word, isolated is not English, and we trust never will be. Much the same may be said of reclamation, and one or two other words; but in general his language is pure, and his style vigorous: and when he shall have a little less confidence in himself, his sober readers will place more in him.


(The British and French were going through one of their occasional episodes of disharmony at the time.)

The English verb isolate was then back-formed from the adjective isolated, which subsequently took up an additional duty as a past participle.

Something that can be isolated is isolable or isolatable; a thing that isolates is an isolator, and has an isolative function; someone in favour of political isolation is an isolationist, who favours isolationism. And a person who is an outcast from society is an isolato, a word we have acquired directly from the Italian.

Both the French and Italian roots come from Latin insula, “island”, a word that the Romans also applied to what we’d now call a block of flats or a condominium. A peninsula is, of course, a promontory of land that is “almost an island”. Insula has provided English with a list of words that relate in some way to the properties of an island. Something pertaining to an island is insular—which has also acquired figurative applications to people or societies that are cut off from the mainstream, stuck in their ways, or narrow-minded. Such people are said to show insularity or insularism. We cut things off from the rest of the world by insulating them, for which purpose we apply insulation. A thing which insulates is described as insulative; it is an insulator or insulant. And then there was the short-lived Septinsular Republic, based on the seven Ionian Islands of Greece. It existed, appropriately enough, for seven years, gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1800, and falling to the French under Napoleon in 1807.

Our English words isle and island have a complicated history. Isle was originally spelled “ile” or “yle”, brought into Middle English from Old French ile, the equivalent of modern French île, “island”. Island, on the other hand, is Germanic in origin, and was originally iland or yland. The first syllable takes its origin from Old English ieg, which was pronounced something like “eey”, and meant … well, “island”. So island is literally “island land”. During the fifteenth century, English speakers began to think of the Germanic word as containing the French word, and would write iland as ile-land. Meanwhile, the French decided to add an “s” to ile, in acknowledgement of its Latin origin in insula. This new French spelling. isle with a silent “s”, leaked into English usage, and immediately had a knock-on effect on the spelling of ile-land. So the old Germanic word acquired a Franco-Latin silent “s” that it really didn’t need, and we ended up with confusing modern spelling “island”. Another English word that ended up with a pointless silent “s” is aisle, which strictly designates the wings on either side of the nave of a church, but (probably because of confusion with the unrelated word alley), is also now the name for a passage between the rows of church pews. It came into English from French aile, which derives from Latin ala, “wing”. English speakers managed to get aile confused with ile, “island”, and when they added the silent “s” in isle, they also added one to aile. (The French later dropped the “s” from isle, marking its departure with a circumflex on the “i”, and in effect walked away whistling, denying all responsibility for the mess they’d created in English spelling.)

A sea dotted with islands can be described as islanded or islandy. Someone who comes from an island is an isleman, islesman, or a gender-neutral islander. Someone who loves islands suffers from islomania. And a small island is, of course, an islet.

Which brings me to the anatomical structures known as the Islets of Langerhans—little circular patches of cells, scattered through the pancreas like islands, and named in honour of the German anatomist Paul Langerhans, who first described them in 1869. It was known that the main part of the pancreas produced digestive enzymes, and it was known that removal of the pancreas caused diabetes. So Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer suggested, during the 1890s, that the Islets of Langerhans must be responsible for producing some substance that acted to control blood sugar. Harking back to Latin insula, “island”, he coined a name for this hypothetical substance produced by the Islet cells—he called it “insuline”, and today we know it as insulin.

Islet of Langerhans, stained for insulin
Islet of Langerhans, stained for insulin (Source)

* Delete as applicable

4 thoughts on “Isolated”

  1. I was interested to read of the island association of insulin with the Islets of Langerhans. It never crossed my horizon before. I think it should have with 4 years of Latin between my ears !

    1. Yes, insulin is one of those medical names that have been around so long that no-one thinks of the derivation. Heparin, from Greek hepar, “liver”, is another.

  2. A bit late for this but I am intrigued about the current day German use of ‘Insel’ for an Island. I first became aware of this when visiting Insel Poel ,near Wismar. It intrigues me that a Germanic based word is still used in the English language but seemingly not in the German language. It instead has adopted a Latin based word for island.

    1. German has another word for “island”, Eiland, which has the full Germanic pedigree. There was a while at the beginning of the last century when it was fairly common, but Insel seems to be in the ascendancy now.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.