Category Archives: new and old words


painting of a boy blowing a soap bubble

Boy blowing bubbles (1867) by Édouard Manet. Painting held in the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal. Public domain.

border bubble,
bubble buddy,
buddy bubble,
corona bubble,
coronavirus bubble,
covid bubble,
double bubble,
germ bubble,
lockdown bubble,
postcode bubble,
social bubble,
support bubble,
travel bubble …


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 ‘squirrelling’ …


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, 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.