wild hamster with full cheeks

Wild hamster with full cheeks. Photograph © Julian Rad. Reproduced with permission.

A while ago, my mother asked me in a text message if it was true that Australians were hoarding toilet paper. My mother writes to me in Dutch, so she called it hamsteren.

The Dutch verb hamsteren was borrowed from German during rationing in 1917. In German, the verb hamstern was derived from — you guessed it — the noun Hamster, for the cute little rodent that is known to store food in its cheek pouches. Both Dutch and English had already borrowed the noun hamster from German, respectively in c. 1599 and c. 1607. Unlike English, Dutch has been creative with this noun and turned it into hamsteraar for ‘hoarder’ and hamsterwoede (literally, ‘hamster fury’) for ‘hoarding frenzy’. Unlike English and Dutch, which use hoarding and hamsteren both for the actual act of hoarding and for the act of buying things that are then hoarded, German seems to use hamstern for the former and Hamsterkäufe machen (literally, ‘making purchases for hoarding’), for the latter.

English-speaking media refer to the current hoarding frenzy as ‘stockpiling’. Not very poetic. Wish they would use ‘squirreling’ …


painting of an island close to shore

The island (1900–01) by Edvard Munch. Painting held in a private collection. Public domain.

A new word for a new time? Well, a new meaning for an old word … The word ‘self-isolation’ is right now being used specifically to mean ‘the act of isolating oneself to avoid infecting or being infected by the novel coronavirus’.

‘Self-isolation’ is a compound word consisting of the prefix ‘self-‘ and the noun ‘isolation’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in the 1750s, English borrowed the French word isolé as an adjective. At first, it was left unchanged but gradually it was changed to ‘isolated’. The French isolé was itself borrowed from the Italian word isolato, the past participle of the verb isolare, which was derived from the noun isola, which in turn was derived from the classical Latin noun insula, ‘island’. Either also borrowed from French or back-formed from ‘isolated’, the verb ‘isolate’ and the noun ‘isolation’ were then formed as well.

sick girl in bed with book

The sick girl (1882) by Michael Ancher. Painting held in Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark. Public domain.


Hammock (1923) by Henri Lebasque. Painting held in the Matsukata collection at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, Japan. Public domain.

My well-earned, long break after months and months of hard work is almost over. ‘Sprinter’ sprang and was over before I realised it and even ‘sprummer’ is now almost over.

Apart from spending time with family visiting from overseas, I’ve been relishing doing nothing. I had a stack of books to read and a list of things-to-do-when-I-have-more-time, but I seem to have accomplished hardly any of it. And I don’t feel guilty about it.

One thing I did do, however, was finally catch up on the ‘news’ that, after the Danish hygge and the Swedish lagom, there’s a new loan word on the block: the Dutch word niksen. Just as was the case for hygge and lagom, there really is nothing special or unique about either the word or the concept. It’s a verb derived from the word niks, ‘nothing’, and it’s been around (in Dutch) since the 1950s. Some articles seem to imply that niksen is a Dutch concept, which is a bit silly. What is dolce far niente? Or smelling the roses? And, as some of the articles I read point out, the Dutch aren’t that great at doing nothing either. Anyway, I’m all for promoting the benefits of doing nothing but you don’t have to call it niksen to practise it, and doing nothing doesn’t have to literally mean ‘doing nothing’ either …

Not that it isn’t fun to learn a new word in a foreign language. My favourite is still the Japanese word tsundoku. If I can believe what I read on the internet …

Le Pradet, young woman in a hammock (1923) by Henri Lebasque. Painting held in a private collection. Public domain.

changing seasons


Landscape at Le Cannet, the white trees (1940) by Pierre Bonnard. Painting held in a private collection. Public domain.

The first of March is officially the start of autumn Down Under, but here we are, trying to keep cool in an ‘unseasonal’ heatwave. Perhaps a sign of things to come? Or, perhaps we’re still looking at our seasons from a misguided European perspective? Or, perhaps both.

This year, in our garden at least, I will start using the five-season system proposed by Tim Entwistle, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Victoria, based on his look at nature around him and on the fact that Indigenous communities around this country apply varying categorisations of the seasons.

This is what our five seasons look like according to Tim Entwistle on his blog, Talking Plants:

[Our] seasonal year starts with sprinter (August and September), the early Australian spring. That’s when the bushland and our gardens burst into flower. That’s also when that quintessential Australian plant, the wattle, is in peak flowering across Australia. Next is sprummer (October and November), the changeable season, bringing a second wave of flowering. Summer (December to March) should be four months long, extending into March when there are still plenty of fine, warm days. Autumn (April and May) barely registers in Sydney but further south we get good autumn colour on mostly exotic trees, as well as peak fungal fruiting. Winter (June and July) is a short burst of cold weather and a time when the plant world is preparing for the sprinter ahead. [my bolding]

The new words ‘sprinter’ and ‘sprummer’ are so-called blend words, respectively of ‘spring + winter’ and ‘spring + summer’. So far, these words have not made it into our dictionaries yet. Let’s see if they will catch on …

twelfth night

Last month, I noticed some advertisements inspired by the ‘twelve days of Christmas’. RSPCA Victoria, for example, had a Facebook campaign called the ‘12 strays of Christmas’. Creative, yes. Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, they were advertising in the weeks leading up to Christmas, whereas the twelve days of Christmas don’t start until Christmas Day and end on twelfth night, on 5 January …


Three Kings’ Day in Flanders, 2010. Image in public domain.

The following day, on 6 January, some Christian churches celebrate the Epiphany, the visit of the three wise men to the infant Jesus. In Flanders, this day is called ‘three kings’ day’ (driekoningendag) or ‘thirteen-day’ (dertiendag).

Around that time, it is custom for children to dress up as one of the three kings (or wise men). In groups of three, they go knocking on doors, often carrying a homemade Star of Betlehem on a stick, and sing ‘three kings’ songs’ to receive sweets in return. Bakeries sell the ‘three kings’ tart’ (driekoningentaart). This cake traditionally contains a dry bean. Whoever gets the bean gets to be king or queen for the day and wear a crown!


The feast of the bean king (c. 1640–45) by Jacob Jordaens. Painting held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Public domain.