Pests before Pets: The Etymology of “Hamster” and Nationalizing Tendencies in Slavic Linguistics

Monday, October 2, 2017
5:30 pm
Irvin Hall 040

The English word hamster has quietly lived in its etymological burrow for the past century, not making too much of a stir. In the majority of etymological dictionaries of English (Weekley 1921, OED 1969, Klein 1971, to name a few), the word is said to have been initially borrowed from OHG hamustro (OSaxon hamstra), initially entering Europe through OSlavic homěstoru. This is typically where the chase ends, so to speak. However, recently having uncovered an interesting twist in the etymology from BDE (Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology 1988), Pennington attempts to shed light on hamster via a view that takes hamster as a compound going back (at least) to Avestan hamæstara ‘oppressor, hurling to the ground’, which also sheds light on the original semantics of the etymon. Moreover, he believes, this etymon ultimately shows a Balto-Slavic split of the English “taxicab” variety, where depending on how the word is clipped it can manifest either as the entire etymon, or the first or second element, according to the speech community. Finally, the reticence of Soviet linguists to see Baltic (or a non-Slavic language) as a source of initial /h/ in Slavic can be viewed as an instance of broader linguistic nationalizing tendencies in Communist nations, including e.g., the Former Yugoslavia (specifically Croatia) and Greece. 

Joshua Pennington
Joshua Pennington
Miami Univeristy Department of English