We all have encountered this Germanism during the Corona virus pandemic – hamster (pronounce hum-stah). Indeed, the English version of the noun and verb is identical in its unconjugated or undeclined form whereas the German infinitive adds an “n”, hamstern. As a linguist, I’m thrilled of course, to find that word, although allegedly derived from Old German, actually has its origins in the Eastern Middle East and is, therefore, so much older! The Avestan or Old Iranian term simply means to throw or press down, and to subdue. In connection to the animal, it might mean that the hamster was always considered as a varmint damaging agriculture or it may refer to their habit of storing food underground.
We all know that hamsters are about the size of a mouse or a rat, have usually short tails, and use their elastic cheeks to transport food. They have short, strong limbs that are used for climbing and digging as well as for extensive running. No surprise there – the hamster wheel plainly accommodates pets with the opportunity to move in a small space that they otherwise would lack. In human existence, a hamster wheel signifies mindless but repetitive and stressful activity without any progress whatsoever.
As a lot of animals used to living underground, hamsters’ eyesight isn’t developed too well, but their hearing and their sense of smell is. The latter helps them decide which food is still good to eat. And woe if they find any that they like. Off it goes into their expendable cheeks and down into their burrows! In some countries, farmers simply replough their hamster-infested fields to replant them with what the little rascals have stolen. Apparently, the amounts of seeds are plentiful enough to do so!
When it comes to the verb “to hamster,” it clearly has the meaning of hoarding. Remember empty supermarket shelves during the first months of the recent pandemic? No bottled water, no toilet paper, no yeast, no rice, no pulses. I still wonder where the illogical buying pattern hails from. But I hear it’s a common habit to go for these items first whenever something bad is about to hit. Though, why you hoard hundreds of rolls of toilet paper for a usually foreseeably short time window is utterly beyond me. And I wonder who actually baked that much bread during the pandemic that they bought up all the yeast that now, once more, is available so plentifully. With hindsight, any homemaker knows about the usual amounts used of any household item and can buy accordingly. Hamstering, therefore, is simply a mechanism triggered by blind panicking, and it can often enough only be countered by rationing. Something that works also with our little furry fellows – cut their supplies! So, human hamstering usually goes along with illicit trading and rising prices. That’s when the panic turns into greed.
Ah, little hamster, soft creature, your innocent instinct has given your doings a bad name as soon as it is done by creatures with the capability of rational thinking. Just because you are so perfect in your ways, and … maybe we humans are not.