420 Day: Why There Are So Many Different Names for Weed
T here are at least 1,200 slang terms related to marijuana — or cannabis or hashish or weed or pot or, as some say, asparagus. And there are hundreds more to describe one’s state of intoxication after imbibing the drug, according to slang scholar Jonathon Green.
Collecting slang has been the work of Green’s life, and the 69-year-old refers to drugs as one of slang’s “best sellers.” That’s because slang and things-you’re-not-supposed-to-mention-in-polite-society go hand in hand. As TIME has reported, that unmentionable quality is what led five California high-schoolers to coin the term 420 in the 1970s, which likely led to April 20 becoming the de facto day of doobies. But that association goes back to the earliest recorded slang from the 16th century, coined by those who didn’t want authorities to know what they were talking about.
But why are there hundreds and hundreds of words for pot? With any slang, as adults or authorities become wise to what one term means, that’s a signal that it’s time for a new one. And the wide variety of people who smoke marijuana across the globe were bound to come up with different words. Green says he doesn’t see the creativity waning even as U.S. states and other countries move to legalize marijuana.
“The terminology doesn’t really emphasize illegality: It is the illegality that created the need for the terminology,” he says. And, Green adds, the creation of such terms is not only “seen as ‘fighting the man,’ it is also simply fun.”
Here is a selection of weed’s many synonyms from Green’s online database, with his research on where the terms come from, grouped by the likely inspiration for their coinages.
Because of its effects
airplane – because it gets one “high.” Also see “parachute” and “pocket rocket”
amnesia – because it can make one forgetful
climb – might be a play on getting “high,” might be a play on “climbing the walls”
doobie – may be related to another slang meaning of doobie: a dull, stupid person
good giggles – because it makes people laugh
Houdini – because the user “escapes” reality
reefer — a Spanish derived word. “Grifo” is Mexican slang to describe someone under the influence of marijuana, because “grifo” can refer to tangled, frizzy hair and therefore a similar mental state. That became “greefo,” which then became abbreviated as reefer
spliff — this likely comes from the verb splificate, which may be fanciful and may be a combination of the words stifle and suffocate. Whatever its origins, the word describes confusing or confounding someone
Because people like it
ace – slang for something superior
baby – a term of affection for the drug
green goddess – green for the color, goddess for the experience
Because it is a (green) plant
alfalfa – also slang for beard, money and tobacco
asparagus – also broccoli, parsley, sassafras and turnip greens
bud – the name for the part of the cannabis plant that is smoked
Christmas tree – also fir. “Lumber” can refer to unwanted twigs in the bud
grass – also bush and weed
green – for the color, the same reason it is slang for money. Similar slang terms are green stuff, greenery and green tea
herb — among Rastafarians, who use the substance religiously, this term has been used to emphasize that it is “natural” like other herbs. With a similar flare, the substance has been called “mother” and “mother nature,” as well as the “noble weed” and “righteous bush”
Because of language
Aunt Mary – a pun on marijuana, just like Mary Jane, Mary Warner, Mary Weaver, and Mary and Johnny
da kine – this Hawaiian surf slang can refer to anything for which one forgets the precise name
dona Juanita – “lady Jane” in Spanish, a play on marijuana
ganja – derives from a Hindi word for the hemp plant
marijuana – the Spanish name for the plant. Many in legal U.S. markets have tried to move away from this term, because of its association with the illegal drug trade, and instead use cannabis
muggle – unknown origin but the use of “muggle-head” to mean marijuana-smoker dates to the 1920s
pot — derives from the Spanish word for marijuana leaves, potiguaya
rainy day woman — this may come from the Bob Dylan song with the chorus line “Everybody must get stoned”
thirteen — the first letter of marijuana is the 13th in the alphabet
Because of the way a joint is shaped
alligator cigarette –may also be related to an alligator’s general lack of speed
bag of bones – multiple marijuana cigarettes
blunt – though the wrapper of any cigar can be used today, early users of the term used the brand Phillies Blunt
stogie – this slang term for an over-sized marijuana cigarette comes from a slang word for a cigar. That term, in turn, comes from an abbreviation of a large heavy horse breed, Conestoga, because the men who drove them were associated with smoking those products
Because of quality
cabbage – poor quality bud, perhaps resembling the vegetable
catnip – inferior or fake marijuana
chronic – the word meaning extreme or severe came to describe marijuana with strong effects
dank – this term started out describing unpleasant, swamp-like things and, like “bad” itself, then came to describe good things, like marijuana of the best quality
Nixon — named after the president, refers to poor quality bud being sold as high quality budOn 420 Day, here's a selection of the most popular names for marijuana, and where those words come from
Cannabis Etymology: Names for Cannabis and Their Origins
As a plant of undeniable value to every culture that has encountered it, it is not surprising that local names for cannabis have arisen in many of the areas that its use has become established. With some of these names, it is possible to chart the spread of cannabis throughout the world.
We’ll explain the etymology of all the most commonly used words for cannabis, so let’s start with the one that we’re all familiar with:
Etymology of ‘Cannabis’
A Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word root for cannabis gave us many of our modern cognates, including cannabis itself. The word root is thought to be *kan(n)aB-. *B represents a *p or *b bilabial stop consonant (made by pressing the lips together to block the passage of air; p and b being the most common sounds)., As languages have evolved over the centuries, this root has given us a range of cognates for cannabis and hemp including the Czech “konopí”, the Hebrew “qannabbôs”, and the English “cannabis”.
There is still some debate regarding the etymological lineages of some modern names for cannabis and hemp. For example, it is not clear whether the Hebrew “qannabbôs” (and its possible precursor kanbos) are derived from the ancient Greek “kannabis” or vice versa. Undoubtedly, we derive the modern word cannabis directly from the Latin cannabis, which is in turn derived directly from Greek.
It is thought that the Greek “kannabis” (the earliest recorded term for the plant) was a direct transliteration of an identical Scythian or Thracian cognate, which may in turn have evolved from the Proto-Germanic *hanapiz, a compound of Finno-Ugric *kéne (hemp) and *piš (to burn; nettle). However, this is merely a hypothesis. Another holds that the etymology runs thus: Greek kannabis
Etymology Of ‘Hemp’
Much controversy surrounds the precise etymology of many modern words, due to the complex interactions between disparate populations over the last few thousand years, which in some cases have led to words being loaned back and forth until their exact origins have become obscured.
It is certainly difficult to trace the etymology of hemp and cannabis. Their uses are so varied and abundant that many related words have found their way into many different languages, describing different uses or forms of the plant. However, it is believed that the two words ultimately derive from the same PIE root.
The modern word hemp, as well as the Dutch word “hennep”, the German “Hanf” and the Scandinavian “hamp” or “hampa”, are believed to derive from the *hanap- root, which in turn derives from *hanapiz. The consonant shift from k- to h- corresponds with Grimm’s Law, otherwise known as the First Germanic Sound Shift, in which many voiced consonants including k- began to shift to voiceless ones such as h- (also denoted as x-, which in modern German is pronounced like the -ch in “Bach”).
Etymology of ‘Marijuana’
Marijuana, an obscure term prior to its popularisation by the U.S. campaign to prohibit cannabis in the 1920s and ’30s, may derive from the Nahuatl word “mallihuan”, meaning “prisoner”, although this may also be a case of coincidental homophony. It may also partly derive from the Spanish name “Maria Juana”, or “Mary Jane”.
This partly explains the emergence of various ritualistic practices linked to the Virgin Mary (Maria), such as the Doctrine of Santa Maria. This is a Brazilian religious group that ritualises the use of cannabis. Its development may also correspond to some degree to the introduction of the Chinese word “ma hua” (meaning “cannabis/hemp flowers”) to local vernacular as migrant workers were brought to the region.
However, the association between the two words may be much more ancient. Both marijuana and ma may derive from the Semitic consonant group mrr (most Semitic languages, including modern Hebrew, do not make use of vowels). The Chinese ma is thought to originate from the root mrj, pronounced *maraj or *mraj; the shared Semitic root is thought to have developed into the modern term marijuana via an Arabic loan word brought to Spain by the Moors.
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Etymology of ‘Weed’, ‘Pot’ and ‘Kush’
While it might be difficult to trace the etymology for some of cannabis’ more scientific names, the passage of slang terms is much easier to follow.
- The word “pot” has nothing to do with a cooking vessel. This nickname for cannabis comes from the Spanish “potación de guaya”, shortened to “potiguaya”, literally translating to the “drink of grief”. This beverage was brewed by steeping cannabis flowers in wine.
- The word “weed”, on the other hand, is likely to have emerged as a slang name in the 70s for young people to remain inconspicuous when talking about it. Naturally, the name probably comes from the fact that cannabis grows much like a weed in many parts of the world.
- Finally, “kush” is now a term that many people use when they are simply talking about good quality cannabis. Kush is actually the name of a mountain range in Pakistan, the place where the Hindu Kush strain originates. This is where the strain got its name, as well as from where the slang word “kush” entered modern-day, Western language.
Etymology of ‘Bhang’
The word “bhang”, as well as its various related cognates (Egyptian “banga”, Tamil “bangi”) is derived from the Sanskrit “bhanga”, which in turn is believed to be derived from the Hebrew “pannag” or “bannag” (p and b being largely interchangeable in Hebrew). The Sanskrit language is most closely related to the ancient Iranian languages Old Persian and Avestan, and it is believed that migrants from the north-west brought the term to India and Pakistan during the second millennium BCE.
In modern times, bhang and related terms for cannabis can be found throughout South Asia and much of Eastern and Southern Africa, as well as some areas in northern Africa. During the 10th to the 15th centuries, Arab, Asian and later Portuguese traders brought cannabis from Asia to East Africa, where it then spread throughout the continent by local traders and tribespeople.
In 1609, the Dominican priest Joao dos Santos described the practice of chewing cannabis leaves which South African locals referred to as ”bangue”, and from which an intoxicating drink of the same name was made.
Etymology of ‘Ganja’
Cannabis is known as “ganja” throughout much of the world, although the term originated in India. Ganja is a good example of a name that originated from one particular region and then spread elsewhere, as the cultural aspects of cannabis were exported along with the plant itself. Ganja may also ultimately derive from the same PIE root *kan(n)aB-, although if so, its passage into modern language occurred via different routes.
Ganja and related cognates (ganjari, gunja, kanchavu) are thought to derive from another Sanskrit term for cannabis, gañjya-, which may in turn have derived from a Sumerian word found on tablets dating back to at least 700 BCE, ganzigunnu, where ganzi- is cognate with ganja and -gunnu with qaneh or kunneh. The term ganzigunnu therefore neatly marries the Near Eastern word grouping with that of the Far East.
There is also some speculation that the word “ganja” is derived from the word “Ganga”, the Sanskrit name for the sacred Ganges river that runs through North India. In and around the Ganges, cannabis grows wild.
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Other words for cannabis
There are several other terms for cannabis which do not originate from the PIE root *kan(n)aB-, but which may have some shared ancestry or more recent affiliation—such as the Mexican Spanish marijuana and the Chinese ma.
There are few substances on the planet that have acquired as many nicknames as the cannabis plant. Its use is so deeply embedded in so many cultures that naturally, many different names emerged. Some of these names are names of worship while some are simply the product of etymological evolution.
5 thoughts on “Cannabis Etymology: Names for Cannabis and Their Origins”
Spain and France cut off Britain’s cannabis supplies so they could not support a navy. No cannabis, no canvas and no rope. So Queen Elizabeth’s many sons came up with a solution: they sent Sir Walter Raleigh to the New World to obtain millions of hemp seeds. Elizabeth then forced all citizens to buy the seeds, and forced all of them to farm it, even the ones in the cities. By law they could only sell their product to the State and they had to turn over most of their seeds too. Elizabeth was already growing cannabis in the medicinal portion of her “Tudor Garden” aka “POTAGER Garden”, because all the plants were grown in clay pots. She simply taught the city dwellers to grow in pots as well, from which we get our modern word “POT”.
I also think you should include the Sumerian word “shesh” which the Egyptians used as well. There are inscriptions of cannabis leaves in Egypt, but more importantly, the Kharsag Epics mention Shesh-Grain and these were concerned with the era around 5500 BCE.
This is fascinating, thanks for the information! Do you have a source for it please? I’ll bring your comment to the attention of the author of this article. Thanks again,
with best wishes,
WE LOOKED FOR THIS INFORMATION FOR SO LONG. Thank you for your service. You do good work.
Great…Thank you….How well I appreciate everyone’s research, besides mine own.Over the ages, different cultures have coined different names for the cannabis plant. In this article we explore these terms and their etymological origins. ]]>