It’s rare to see a buzzword take on both positive and negative connotations within a short period of use, but such has been the confusing case with ‘ninja’ in recent years.
In its original sense, a ninja was an assassin or spy who used stealth and camouflage in feudal Japan. Centuries later, however, the popularity of fanciful martial arts tales elevated the ninja archetype to international renown. In modern times, some military and rebel forces in violent regions around the world—including Croatia, the Republic of the Congo, Indonesia and Angola—have referred to themselves as ninja.
Far less menacingly, the term has also been adopted in civilian life to represent the aspirations of software programmers (code ninjas) and online video gamers (loot ninjas), among others. In these cases, ‘ninja’ is speciously used to convey stealth as an advantage in the realm of information technology (IT).
Another more pessmistic meaning has arisen from the current economic downturn, the acronym ‘No Income, No Job or Assets’ (NINJA). HCL Finance, for example, offered Ninja loans during the U.S. housing ‘bubble’ that eventually led to that country’s subprime mortgage crisis. More recently, the Philippines’ presidential advisor Joey Salceda has described a new financial stimulus program as the Ninja Plan, with the goal of helping unemployed workers find new jobs.
While catchy, none of the original meaning of ‘ninja’ is retained in these positive and negative connotations. Hopefully, they will soon cancel each other out.