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I’m a native German speaker looking for the correct term for a condition when people are restricted from leaving their homes (German: Ausgangssperre). For example, in the case of a virus outbreak.

I’d have picked the term curfew (and my favorite online dictionary agrees with me). But I got told by a native English speaker that she’d expect that to be only a night-time thing.

A suggested term from her was confinement — but that sounds prison-ish to me.

What are the correct English terms for German Ausgangssperre?

Extra information which might be helpful for people who are not native German speakers

Ausgangssperre in German:

  • Implies compulsion.
  • Does not imply a reason; it could be military, civil unrest, dangerous animals, disease, weather, and so on.
  • Does not imply a certain time of the day.
  • Has a negative vibe to it.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Mar 1 at 18:34
  • The American media preferably use 'containment'. E.g. "Trump wasn't very good at containment." The British media appear to prefer 'lockdown'. – johann_ka Mar 15 at 14:59
  • Confinement suggests pregnancy to me rather than prison. – Andrew Leach Mar 22 at 12:58

12 Answers 12

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In English,

  • Curfew refers to a time imposed by the authorities where you can’t be on the streets after a certain time at night. You can travel all you want during the day but you can’t be outside at night after curfew, a given time starting in the evening. Presumably curfew lasts until daybreak. If you’re over at a friends place, you’ll have to stay there, you can't go out until morning. I suppose a curfew could be for anytime of the day, but the first thought is that it is for nighttime. The rule is imposed for as long as the authorities say, while you're still under occupation or you're still a teenager.

    The invaders imposed a curfew to help prevent local insurrection.

    When I was 16, my parents gave me a curfew of 11pm so I wouldn’t stay out too late and get into trouble.

    If you break curfew, you may be arrested. Curfew has the negative connotation of oppression and being punitive.

  • Quarantine refers to the condition of being kept in a single place while you’re sick or infectious. Quarantine may be at a hospital, medical facility, or at one’s own home. You can’t leave, all day every day, until the doctor says so, which could be for days or weeks.

    People with tuberculosis need to be kept in quarantine until antibiotics have cured them.

    Leaving quarantine is not nominally a civil offense, but it is a medical hazard. Quarantine has the negative connotation of being sick and communicable. It's not a punitive measure (you didn't do any thing to deserve it, it's not a punishment).

  • Shelter in place is a recent phrasing (to me at least) used by authorities as a recommendation (maybe it is just a euphemism for an order?) to stay at home.

    The black bear was seen walking into the neighborhood coffee shop. Until the animal control people have captured the bear, please shelter in place. It should take no longer than two hours.

    'Shelter in place' has only the slightest negative connotation in that something bad must be going on to need it, but there's no panic involved because you're just waiting.

Quarantine and curfew are nearby but would never be confused in English. Quarantine is for sickness and is continuous, curfew is for police control and is (usually) just for nighttime.

What I’ve found as translation for Ausgangssperre on Leo was curfew, but it seems like you can use the German word for other things like quarantine, though the translation of quarantine they give to German is the transparent Quarantäne.

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    Yes, 'shelter' has that implication, for your own safety, either safety from something dangerous or to get out of the way of the authorities trying to get rid of the danger. – Mitch Feb 29 at 15:42
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    (In a military state) curfew can be 24/7 - even if in most cases it is declared for the evening/night. One would still expect martial law to be enacted in the first place, else it might be difficult to enforce (considering the long-lasting discussion using the "Bundeswehr" "within the borders" or "against us"). – Martin Zeitler Feb 29 at 17:21
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    @DrP3pp3r Newspapers sometimes use the term "house arrest". It doesn't imply any voluntary confinement. Is this the term you are looking for? – nagavamsikrishna Feb 29 at 18:12
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    @DrP3pper, the term "24-hour curfew" can be found both in news text, official documents and the Wikipedia article on curfew, and seems to match Ausgangssperre (or the corresponding swedish utegångsförbud - "going outside - ban"). – drRobertz Feb 29 at 18:48
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    Quarantine doesn't necessarily mean confinement to a particular location. An entire city or country can be quarantine, so someone can still travel within the region, they just can't go in or out. – Acccumulation Feb 29 at 21:01
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The Oxford Duden German Dictionary Oxford University Press 1998 edition, translates Ausgangssperre as - "curfew" (für Soldaten - for soldiers), confinement to barracks.

No mention here is made of "quarantine" for which there is a German word - Quarantäne.However, in the comments following the question, @Robusto and I would appear to be in agreement that the English word quarantine does not necessarily imply compulsion. Hence there would not seem to be a single English word which means "enforced quarantine".

The word internment exists in English (German Internierung), but the OED indicates this as "for political or military purposes". It means "detention without trial". However I have never heard the word "internment" used for compulsory quarantine.

So I think the best English translation, in the circumstances, would be to resort to two words "compulsory quarantine".

Why do they not use the word Quarantäne, rather than Ausgangssperre? Is it because, as in English, it does not imply compulsion?

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    I'm not a philologist, but as a native speaker for me "Quarantäne" is used when the reason for not supposed to leave is an infectious disease. An "Ausgangssperre" just means a ban from leaving your home/current location. May it be for military reasons, because of civil unrest or because your local queen wants the roads to herself. – DrP3pp3r Feb 29 at 10:39
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    @DrP3pp3r Yes, *Quarantäne*/quarantine means isolation in order to prevent spreading a disease. Confinement to a place is the most important part of it, sometimes the only one; but often other safety measures like avoiding physical contact or preventing outside visitors from entering will be in force, which are not part of a simple confinement. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 29 at 14:24
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    @WS2 "Ausgangssperre is really not quarantine. An "Ausgangssperre" is not specific to infectious diseases. It may be part of a quarantine, but a quarantine will usually involve an "Eingangssperre" as well, if you want, and other sanitary measures. "Ausgangssperre", or curfew, is more often associated with public unrest. I agree that curfew is not an exact equivalent: For example, a curfew for pubs is not an "Ausgangssperre"; and it is related to a specific time, the hour to "cover the fire", which "Ausgangssperre" is not. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 29 at 14:31
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I'd suggest lockdown it has certain prison-ey connotations, but definitely has the negative slightly ambiguous 'you must obey' style vibe.

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Ausgangssperre in German:

  • Implies compulsion.
  • Does not imply a reason; it could be military, civil unrest, dangerous animals, disease, weather, and so on.
  • Does not imply a certain time of the day.
  • Has a negative vibe to it.

I would suggest that "confinement", as was originally suggested to you, fits the bill perfectly.

Wiktionary defines confinement in part as:

the state of being confined

In turn, the relevant meanings of confined are defined as:

  1. Not free to move.
  2. Limited; narrow; restricted.

It:

  • implies compulsion (solitary confinement, etc.)
  • does not imply a reason (confinement can be for many different reasons)
  • does not imply a time of day (in fact it suggests a continuous period)
  • has a negative vibe to it (see solitary confinement, restraints, etc.)

A patient can be confined with restraints (straitjacket, strapped to a bed, etc.) or merely isolated from other people. Although there is an overtone of prisons, it is not the only common feeling of the word.

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How come nobody has mentioned this term yet?

House arrest

As per definition by dictionary.com:

confinement of an arrested person to his or her residence or to a public place, as a hospital, instead of in a jail

Or Cambridge:

legally forced to stay in your house as if in prison

And Oxford too:

the state of being a prisoner in your own house rather than in a prison

As you can see, the term (being under a) house arrest has the same compulsory sense and the same negative connotation as the German word Ausgangssperre, and does not imply a specific reason, although most of the time this terms is used in a legal sense(i.e. as a punishment to a crime).

As an alternative, an North American slang especially popular among teenagers is:

Grounded

On Cambridge:

A child or young person who is grounded is not allowed to go out as a punishment

On dictionary.com:

Informal. to restrict the activities, especially the social activities, of

I failed to find the similar definitions for this term Oxford, presumably due to its informality. Nevertheless, it is not marked as informal on Cambridge. If your target audience is North American, and the language you use is not strictly formal, this word will do its job fine in conveying the same sense as Ausgangssperre, as it carries a sense of being forced to stay at one's home(compulsory), very often as a punishment(negative connotation), and can be because of anything.

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    "House arrest" - just like "arrest" - suggests that it's a punishment because you were bad. – user253751 Mar 2 at 12:16
  • The OP wanted a word without connotations of prison. Do you have any examples of "arrest" being used outside criminal/political instances? Your other word "grounded" applies specifically to young people. Someone who is grounded will still be sent to school but has to come straight home afterwards without outside leisure time. This doesn't make sense for someone with a highly communicable disease. – CJ Dennis Mar 8 at 22:25
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A recent headline in The New York Times was:

Chemical Plant Explosion in Spain ... Prompts Order to Stay Inside

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/14/world/europe/spain-chemical-plant-explosion.html

This seems to me to be a very close equivalent for the German Ausgangssperre, including all the implied connotations and flexibility listed in the original question here.

Other examples of this English usage can be found by googling "order to stay inside." More specific locations may instead be given as "indoors" or "(at) home" rather than "inside."

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Isolation is seeing a lot of use in this context. On its own it doesn't refer to a compulsory state - in fact "self-isolation" has become for the voluntary case. You may need to specify "enforced isolation" or "compulsory isolation". This is similar to quarantine, but the latter normally means confinement in a facility set aside for the purpose; the current use of "isolation" commonly refers to confinement at home.

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Since English tends not to compound words as easily or often as German does, the "most correct" translation that covers all situations you could use a compound like ausgangssperre in would start with a more literal translation of the component words:

ausgang-sperre: exit-ban, or even aus-gang-sperre: out-way-ban

I'd suggest "banned from leaving" would work in the most cases, but if you really want a single word Mitch's answer has more specific words for specific situations.

To add to that I'd suggest "housebound", but without extra context that would normally be applied to someone who is unable to try to leave (because of illness or disability).

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    "Housebound" is when you're unable to leave the house (illness/disability), but are not legally compelled to stay. If you are legally compelled to stay at home due to illness, that would usually be called a "quarantine". If you are legally compelled to stay at home due to breaking the law, that would usually be "house arrest". If you are advised to not leave the house due to some extremely hazardous condition outside, that would be "shelter in place". For less hazardous conditions, there might be a "travel ban" or just "please stay home" or "stay inside and close the windows". – Phil Perry Mar 1 at 5:01
  • 'ausgangs' : exit of. 'sperre' : barrier – Mazura Mar 1 at 21:31
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I'd try concocting a term like "confinement ordinance". For official instructions to some part of the populace, "ordinance" seems like the right term. And confinement is basically what this would be about. It's not really all that satisfactory, but then that's sometimes what you have to deal with in translation.

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I would use the form "order to remain indoors" to describe Ausgangssperre.

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While it is true that curfews were originally, and are still generally, a nighttime-only thing, the term has been extended to cover 24-hour situations. A Google search for "24 hour curfew" will show some examples. And I would suggest that's a pretty good noun phrase to use as a translation if it is in fact a 24-hour thing.

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In reference to the recent COVID-19 outbreak, Canadian governments and media outlets are using the phrase "being asked to self-isolate at home" -- sometimes without the "at home."

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  • A link to the phrase being used would improve this answer. – CJ Dennis Mar 8 at 22:09

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