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November 02, 2018  |  Friday words #145  |  2647 hit(s)

I don't even remember what I was reading, but not long ago I ran across the term ninja rocks. This sounds kind of cool, doesn't it? These "rocks" are in fact pieces of broken porcelain that are useful for the commission of certain crimes.

Here's the deal. Take a handy automotive spark plug. This has a lot of metal bits that are partially encased in an extremely hard shell of porcelain:

Grab your hammer and break up the porcelain. (Note to the thrifty: do this with a used sparkplug.) Then take these broken pieces and throw them at a car window. Remarkably, doing this can easily shatter the window, as this video shows:[1]

I didn't research this extensively—breaking into cars is not high on my list of priorities at the moment—but this works because of the way auto glass is designed. Namely, in order not to leave large, jagged pieces of glass if it does get broken, auto glass is built to shatter. If you can hit it hard enough with a small enough point, it will do just that. Enter ninja rocks.

I am amused that many descriptions of ninja rocks, including the Wikipedia page, feel the need to point out that ninja rocks "have no traditional association with the ninja." I duly include that disclaimer here.

The other day a colleague took a bite out of a cookie and made a face that was not one of extreme satisfaction. Someone asked him about that, and he responded, "Tastes like marzipan." Considering how widespread marzipan is, I'm surprised at how many people don't love it. But the incident did afford me an opportunity to look into where we got the word.

The first thing I learned is that for several centuries, English used the word marchpane, which seems like it's probably a folk etymology (as we saw with penthouse)—a change in the sound of a borrowed word to make it more native-like. But we re-borrowed it in the 19th century and this time the exotic foreign spelling stuck. We might have gotten it from German, but that language and a bunch of others seem to have gotten marzipan from Italian.

The trail is murky before that, but it's generally thought to lead back to Arabic, with various theories. It might have come from Martaban, the name of a city that was renowned for a type of pottery; the name of the city was attached to the jars and then in turn attached to contents in those jars. Another theory is that it referred to a type of coin, which in turn might have come from a word in Arabic that means "to remain seated" (possibly referring to an image on the coin). The OED calls this last theory "tenuous."

Which leads us back to that cookie, whose flavor my colleague likewise seemed to consider pretty tenuous. I'd probably agree on this last point.

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[1] I picked this video in part because of the evil laugh at the end.