Why do we call marijuana “weed?” The etymology of cannabis slang
In a world of chaos, one universal law holds true: Nearly every culture and every generation has a different word for weed.
Experts say the reason is fairly simple: Each culture with access to marijuana had to come up with a word for it, and those words spread to other parts of the world through migration and colonization over time. Then, particularly throughout the 20th century, every time law enforcement caught wind of a new word for cannabis, another was either adopted or invented.
According to the official list of cannabis slang compiled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), there are over 400 synonyms for cannabis today, and one could argue there are a lot more than that.
But where did they come from?
If you’ve ever been high enough to wonder about the etymology of marijuana, you’re in luck. We dove into the weeds to retrieve the origin stories of today’s most popular cannabis slang.
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Recently declared the “hippest” slang term for marijuana, this trendy nickname has actually seen a few years. It was first listed as one of the “new words” for cannabis in the 1929 edition of “American Speech.” At the time, there were only two widely-used terms for marijuana in the U.S. – the English term, “hemp,” and the scientific word, “cannabis” – so canna-lovers were experimenting with new names to avoid being discovered.
The nickname “weed” didn’t exactly hit at first – mostly because the more exotic term “marijuana” infiltrated the American lexicon in the ‘30’s. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that it really became popular, according to Google search records. Some speculate this is because millennials needed an alternative to their parent’s hippie nicknames, like “grass” and “flower.”
Fun fact: Whereas other nicknames for marijuana are being used less and less each year, this is the only word for cannabis that is used at a steadily increasing rate.
Like “weed,” “pot” was one of the words that emerged in the early 20th century as an alternative to “hemp” and “cannabis,” but wasn’t widely used until the ‘60’s. It’s one of the more mysterious words for cannabis – we really don’t know how it came to be.
There are, however, a couple popular theories.
One theory is that it comes from the Spanish phrase “potación de guaya,” or “potion of grief.” This was the name of a Mexican drink in the early 20th century that mixed wine or brandy with marijuana. Makes sense, except that it’s hard to imagine finding any grief in that.
The other theory is that it references a teapot, which would have been used to serve one of the earliest cannabis products – ganja tea.
Fun fact: This simple mix of cannabis flower and hot water was used medicinally and religiously in ancient India around 1,000 BCE. Later, when the British Empire shipped indentured laborers from India to Jamaica between 1845 and 1917, the name of the ancient Hindi tea became Jamaica’s new favorite term for cannabis.
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Often associated with cannabis, this word technically references all drugs.
It comes from the 19th century Dutch word “doop,” meaning “thick dipping sauce.” Originally a cooking term, it eventually became synonymous with a thick-headed or slow person.
When semi-liquid opium became popular around 1889, the word “doop” was first used in reference to narcotic stupefaction – A.K.A., getting stupid high.
Though used less today than in the ‘70’s, we’d say the term stuck pretty well.
You might think this one sprung straight out of the “flower power” era, but the word “grass” was used for hemp long before the ‘60’s.
“Sacred Grass” was the term used for cannabis in the Hindu text “Atharvaveda,” or “Science of Charms,” between 1000 and 900 BCE. Considered one of the five sacred plants of India, cannabis was used regularly for medicinal and religious purposes in the area at that time.
It’s unclear how hippies picked up on this one over 2,000 years later, but a popular theory is that, since cannabis was generally of a lower quality between the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, it appeared greener and closer to the color of grass, thus resurfacing the ancient nickname.
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If you’ve ever been so high that everything starts to look like a joint, you have something in common with smokers of the 1920’s.
Reefing a sailboat is the act of rolling the sail onto itself to stabilize a boat in strong winds. The person who does this is called the “Reefer.” By a severe stretch of the imagination (or, through the power of a few edibles – but we’re speculating,) this act can look like rolling a joint. So, in the early 20th century, “Reefer” became a derogatory term for smokers, but was quickly adopted by the cannabis community as a synonym for marijuana.
Though the term “reefer” has begun to fade from popularity in recent years, we’ll never look at sailboats the same way.
Marihuana (English: marijuana)
Of all the cannabis nicknames in all the world, this one doubtlessly has the darkest history.
The Mexican Spanish word for cannabis was brought to the United States when nearly 900,000 Mexican immigrants flocked to the United States during the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920.
Like many other cannabis nicknames at the time, it was quickly adopted by cannabis-enthusiasts as an alternative to the slang more familiar to law enforcement. Marihuana (which evolved into “marijuana” as it was Americanized over time) rose to wild popularity in the ’20’s as the new, hip, and “exotic” word for cannabis.
Things took a turn for the worse in the ’30’s, though. The Great Depression hit the country, and some unjustly blamed immigrants for the shattered economy. The popular, Mexican nickname for cannabis came to be associated with the tidal wave of immigration loathed by so many, and was used as an example of the horrible things they believed immigrants would bring to the United States. It’s believed that racism was a key motivator for the criminalization of cannabis in the ’30’s.
Though “marijuana” is still one of the most popular nicknames for cannabis, some chose to avoid the term because of its previous association with racism and cannabis criminalization. For instance, in a public statement, Oakland’s Harborside Heath Center publicly denounced what they called the “M” word.
Whether you chose to use it or not, though, it’s important to be aware of the history it represents.
Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.