Ninja words and phrases

What do the words and phrases cheeseburger, mentee, La Niña, Silver Alert, and Nannygate have in common? Answer after the jump.


… All of them are terms derived from other words and phrases which in turn are derived from people and places, that is, proper nouns. But the child terms listed have been created only with reference to their parent terms, not to the original proper nouns. I’ve decided to call this linguistic phenomenon ninja words and phrases, or, more briefly, ninja words.

A cheeseburger (1954 or 1959) is a hamburger with cheese on top. It comes from hamburger (1908), a grilled ground-meat-patty sandwich on a bun. Hamburger, originally hamburger steak (1889) comes from Hamburg, Germany. 

Cheeseburger is a ninja word because there is no such place as *Cheeseburg.

Mentee (1965) means to be mentored. It comes from mentor (1750), an advisor. Mentor comes from the name Mentor, a Greek mythical figure.

Mentee is a ninja word because Mentor mentored Telemachus, not *Mentee. 

La Niña (1981) is a periodic weather phenomenon that happens around Christmas in which the Pacific surface water temperature is colder than normal. It comes from El Niño (1896), a complementary effect at the same time in other years in which the Pacific surface water temperature is warmer than normal. El Niño is a reference to Jesus, whose birthday is traditionally held by Christians, including the South American fishers who named the phenomenon, to be Christmas.

La Niña is a ninja phrase because Jesus did not have a twin sister.

Silver Alert is an alert sent out over an alert system to call attention to a missing senior citizen. It is derived from AMBER Alert, an alert system to call attention to a missing child, and in fact uses the same alert system to send these alerts. AMBER Alert comes not from the color amber but rather from Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old who was kidnapped and murdered and who happened to be named after a color.

Silver Alert is a ninja phrase because there was no senior named Silver who went missing and got an alert system named after them.

Nannygate refers to any dashing of the political hopes of a nominee for whom it has become public that they hired an illegal alien as a nanny for their children. It is derived using the very productive -gate suffix used to designate a political scandal, and comes from the Watergate scandal which brought down Richard Nixon. The Watergate scandal was so named after the Watergate office complex where political wrongdoings were taking place and discovered.

Nannygate is a ninja word because their is no Nannygate building that Nannygate is named after.

But why ninja word? What about burger word? Cheeseburger is indeed the earliest example of this linguistic phenomenon that I can think of, and indeed burger minus ham has been very productive. It can be used to denote added ingredients, as cheesburger = hamburger + cheese or baconburger = hamburger + bacon. It can also be used to denote replacements for the beef patty, as turkeyburger = hamburger – beef patty + turkey patty or veggieburger = hamburger – beef patty + vegetarian patty.

That said, I’d bet there are earlier examples in English than cheeseburger, so I’d be putting things on very shaky ground to use earliest example that I know of to name this phenomenon. For all I know, Shakespeare used ninja words.

No, I’m taking it from La Niña. I wanted to call them niña words, because these words are children who never met their grandparents. Amber was also a child. Alas, the chances of the term niña words catching on in English is pretty slim.

Why? Just go to type it. On OS X or iOS it’s no big deal; just hold down the “n” key until ñ is offered to you as option 2, whereupon you type the number 2 to get it. But on Windows you have to hold down the alt key and type either 164 or 0241 on the numeric keypad then release the alt key, or else pick it from a character map. Okay, so how about if we use the example of canyon, which comes from Spanish cañón?

We could Anglicize niña to ninya. But that would incur the wrath of all the autocorrect programs. Also, some people might think it’s a typo or misspelling for ninja, since “y” and “j” are near each other on the keyboard and in some languages the “j” is pronounced the way “y” is pronounced in English.

Besides, ninja is considered to be a cool word and increases the likelihood that someone is going to read this blog post.Yeah, I’m desperate. But also, ninjas are supposed to be sneaky, and these words and phrases just snuck into the language without anyone realizing that etymological crimes* were being committed.

* – Lest there be any confusion, I actually find etymological crimes entertaining. They’re certainly much less harmful than legal, or rather illegal, crimes.

So, until someone educates me about a pre-existing, accepted term that describes this phenomenon or else comes up with a better idea, ninja words it is. Anybody know any other examples?

Note: Dates in this article are the dates of the earliest Oxford English Dictionary citations.

Update 12/6/2017: I am given to understand that some of these might fall under the category of what Arnold Zwicky calls libfixes, liberated suffixes and prefixes (and presumably infixes). Let’s see how the terms I’ve listed stack up:

Cheeseburger – Sure, -burger might be the first libfix. Clear and simple.

Mentee – Ment- doesn’t quite make it. It’s offspring mentee is quite well established, but this prefix hasn’t been particularly productive. In fact, mentee is the only word I know of that has been produced from this “prefix.”

La Niña – Only if you consider -niñ- as an infix rather than a root.

Silver Alert – Sure, if you allow a suffix, Alert, to be a separate word.

Nannygate – Yep, -gate is a major libfix and was identified in Zwicky’s article as such.

So, I’d say ninja words and libfixes have a Venn diagram relationship, and I’m still awaiting a formal term for the phenomenon I’ve identified.


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