While walking to my local grocery last Wednesday I found four hamsters in a trash pile. Unfortunately, two had already died and the other two looked like they were well on the way to freezing. I don’t really think of myself as the sort of person who has hamsters, but I also wasn’t going to leave them on the street to die. I finished walking to the grocery store, bought some soup mix and then picked the fuzzballs up on the way back home.
So yeah, I own two hamsters now. Life is weird.
The sudden reality of my life as hamster owner meant that I now had to figure out some way to care for tiny rodents whose behavior and physiology I was but vaguely acquainted with. The solution, as is always, was …
Wikipedia told me many helpful things, such as the fact that because hamsters are burrowing creatures I should provide them with a little privacy. They don’t see very well and so I should be careful not to sneak up on them. They can’t cope with sudden temperature changes so I shouldn’t put them next to a window. They also turn into cannibals when they get stressed so I should perhaps not make them do my taxes. All very practical.
Then Wikipedia, in that off-handed and unintentionally hilarious way that only Wikipedia can pull off, dropped this bomb.
“The name ‘hamster’ is a loanword from German, which itself drives from the earlier High German ‘hamustro.’ It is possibly related to Old Russian ‘chomestru,’ which is either a blend of the root of Russian ‘khomiak’ and a Baltic word ‘staras.’ Or it is of Persian origin, ‘hamaestra’ – oppressor”
Wait, what?! Oppressor? Oh, how badly did I want that Persian etymology to be true? How epic, how awesome! Oh, and by the way. I have a friendly suggestion to all you Russians, a chomestru is positively lame compared to hamaestra. Step up your game or go home, Russia.
(Wikipedia also notes that the male Chinese dwarf hamster is an unpopular pet owing to its grotesquely enlarged scrotum. I love you, Wikipedia.)
I immediately imagined my hamsters plotting at night. Perhaps they would escape their cage, rush to the city hall and covertly pass intrusive censorship laws. Perhaps they had mastered the force and would soon choke me for insubordination. The possibilities seemed endless.
I was so excited by this possibility that I went to sleep and didn’t follow up for three days. But when I did decide to follow up I got to wondering what the dreaded hamaestra were up to in Ancient Persia. I was really hoping that it would turn out to be some awesome legend. Like maybe the Mad King Parathesis had the flesh of his slain enemies fed to swarms of hamaestra. Perhaps the evil Witch Queen had sent poisoned hamaestra to spread disease and plague among the people. Maybe the Persian equivalent of Dr. Evil couldn’t find a cat and used a hamster instead.
When I decided to find out this evening, instead of an evil witch-queen or horde of flesh eating hamsters, I found a librarian. It turns out the Persian etymology was correct and hamster really does come from an ancient word for oppressor, but the explanation is a serious anti-climax. Hamsters used to eat crops in Persia, which annoyed the farmers.