Monday, January 30, 2012

Etymology of hamster and how misinformation propagates

Without getting into too many details I ended up reading a speech that was going to be given by a kid regarding hamsters. One little titbit of information that came out was that the word "hamster" derived from the German "hamstern" which means "to hoard".

Not something I knew and I was ready to add it to my mental database; first though the proof-checking. A quick visit to the Online Oxford Dictionary and their definition includes:

early 17th century: from German, from Old High German hamustro 'corn weevil'
Huh how odd if it was derived from "hamstern" I would expect to see that. Perhaps the German dictionary might offer something else? Nope just the same "hamustro".

Time for a Google search for "hamster hamstern" (no I didn't mean "hamster hamster") and a large number of pages all repeating that hamster derived from hamstern; except one. Much as I hate to have to link to such non-canonical sources this really was the best one. So from the Straight Dope forums and the user Holger:
Although my trusty Kluge etymological dictionary isn't quite explicit in the details, it indicates that the noun came first (describing the animal), and the verb "hamstern" (to hoard) was coined later, alluding to the hamster's behavior
Another quick check back to Duden and "hamstern" is noted as being "umgangssprachlich" or colloquia/everyday language.

In other words it came about the same way people can "squirrel something away" the naming word (noun) was used as an action word (verb) to describe someone/thing acting the same way. In the case of a hamster; its hoarding behaviour probably resulted in people being described as hamsters and thus their actions as the new word hamstern.

So use a dictionary and it'll give you hamustro; check various hamster sites (most likely a lot more popular with kids) and it'll give you hamstern. Which is more likely to continue to be spread about and quoted?


Orphi said...

When I was at university, we had an hour class on how to determine the veracity of a research source.

Which is interesting, because I can't remember a single damned thing they said. The criteria were roughly “Is it published in a peer-reviewed journal? Does it cite a lot of references?”

Kids presumably use the criteria “Is it in writing?” If yes, then it's accurate. Sounds laughable to you, but how many peer-reviewed journals have published stuff which is wildly inaccurate?

FlipC said...

It really is a problem; that I won't deny.

I mean peer-review? Heck I could start a 'scientific' journal on unicorn physiognomy and have all submitted papers forwarded and reviewed by unicorn specialists. Okay a little facetious, but this is the outcome of specialisation. Papers in a rarefied subject can only be critiqued by a small 'in-group' of experts and it can get a little incestuous.

Citations? One lax researcher for a major publisher uses a 'fact' gleaned from the internet and in turn becomes the reference for said fact's veracity.

To an extent the key is transparency and truly trusted sources - I trust the OED and Duden to have done the research even if I can't see their sources.

In other case it is backtracking the references to see where they originate. In the case of hamster and hamstern no-one provided anything beyond the basic statement that this was true, which, in part, acted as the spur for me to dig deeper.

As I've said elsewhere in the same vein - this is something that has to added to our educational curriculum.

Orphi said...

Critical thinking has to be the most boring subject imaginable! Even mathematics is fascinating by comparison. ;-)

Not that I refute your actual assertion, of course…

You know where else critical thinking would be useful? “80% of customers saved money by switching to us!” Otherwise known as “20% of our customers are idiots”.

If more people understood that mashing sciency words into a shampoo advert doesn't actually mean it's better for you, maybe manufacturers would stop doing it.

FlipC said...

But there's no real reason it has to be boring; even something simple as "Chinese whispers" demonstrates the importance of sourcing.

Remember some time back when I recounted playing Hide and Seek with the Bratii and I introduced them to the concept of 'moving'? An examination of the implicit and explicit rules of a game and the assumptions therein.

Of the 20% are idiots - no they didn't save any money, but they didn't lose any either and gained our great customer service :-)

Reading the small print should be an educational lesson "72% of 283 people" seriously that's your basis for your advert! How were these people selected? What questions were posed to them? I mean "99% of respondents preferred our brand of cola over a glass of stagnant water. Now with added dihydrogen monoxide for improved hydration.