Why Is Cannabis Called Marijuana, Weed & Pot?

Why Is Cannabis Called Marijuana, Weed & Pot?

Published on Mar 5, 2021

Pose this question to your friend the next time you're enjoying a smoke, dab or edible: how many different names do you know for marijuana? The response will probably go on for a while. The amount of slang terms and weed names that are in the lexicon is staggering. We've called Cannabis everything from, "The Devil's Lettuce, "Cheeba, "Sticky Icky" and "The Dank, to "Gage", "Mary Jane" and "Endo," and so many things in between. 

The Origin of Cannabis

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Before we get into the slang, let's look at the science. The genus Cannabis resides within the family Cannabaceae that most likely originated somewhere in Asia. Over the years, most people define weed as either Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Subsequently, we've added Cannabis ruderalis, and more. Many of us also know the general term cannabis referring to a plant used for medicinal purposes, as an intoxicating drug, to produce textiles, seed oils and rope. We've learned to refer to certain types of dried cannabis flower as marijuana, and the industrial fiber produced from cannabis plants as hemp. We also produce extracts like hashish and hash oil from the plant. The word itself comes directly from the Latin word "cannabis," which many people believe derived from the ancient Greek term "kannabis." There is also considerable speculation about whether the Hebrew "qannabbos" pre-dated the ancient Greek word, but it is difficult to be sure. 

Marijuana Meaning

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The dried leaves of the female flowers on the cannabis plant many people know colloquially as marijuana. Much like cannabis, scholars dispute the origin of this word, as well. "Marijuana" is an Anglicized version of the Spanish "mariguana" and "marihuana," but where did the Spanish get it? Here are a few theories:

  • It is an alteration or adaptation of a word from pre-Colombian societies (such as the Nahuatl or Quechua) in what is now Mexico and Central America.
  • Chinese traders called cannabis "ma ren hua" (meaning "hemp seed flower") when they brought it to the Western Hemisphere and the name stuck. Perhaps this is why in parts of Central America and northern South America, people sometimes call weed "Chinese oregano?"
  • The word developed much more recently and is simply an Americanism that combines the two common Mexican names of Maria and Juana. Maybe that's why we sometimes call weed Mary Jane?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known appearance of a form of the word in English is in The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America, published in 1873 by Hubert Howe Bancroft. Other citations include "mariguan," from the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report in 1894 and "marihuana" from a Los Angeles Times article in 1905 that includes this horrific, sensationalized description: "People who smoke marihuana finally lose their mind and never recover it, but their brains dry up and they die, most of the time, suddenly." Even more sensational, in 1925 The New York Times published this headline: "KILLS SIX IN A HOSPITAL.; Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife." 

What is Weed?

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In 1929, American Speech, the academic journal of the American Dialect Society, included "weed" in its piece, "Among the New Words," and defined it as a "marijuana cigarette." This is the first formal appearance of the word used as a synonym for cannabis and it surprisingly defined a cigarette filled with cannabis, and not that actual plant itself. In 1938, Bea Foote released, "Weed," in which she sings about "weed, weed, weed, all day long." It is unclear whether she is still talking about her marijuana cigarette or her marijuana stash in general. While we have used the term "weed" for centuries to define an unwanted plant, it wasn't until 1949 that the terminology changed with the publication of The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler's fifth book featuring gritty private investigator, Philip Marlowe. The famous line dropped the ubiquitous "the" that normally prefaced "weed." "They were looking for... a suitcase full of weed," and suddenly the term morphed into a completely different type of noun. 

Why is Weed Called Pot?

This cannabis moniker first showed up in the U.S. in the late 1930s. Many people generally agree that it is an abbreviation of the Spanish words potiguaya and potaguaya that came from potacion de guaya.  Translated to English as "the drink of grief," the Spanish would steep cannabis flower buds in alcohol to create this concoction. Obviously, where did the term pot come from is a far easier question to answer.
How it filtered its way into mainstream use is another question altogether. Most scholars believe that Chester Himes, another crime fiction writer, popularized the term. Instead of Los Angeles, Himes chose Harlem as his setting and wrote in the short story "The Way We Live Now," in 1938, "she made him smoke pot and when he got jagged [high]...she put him on the street." William Burroughs' 1959 classic, Naked Lunch, also comes close to a pop culture reference. Instead of "pot," however, Burroughs uses "pod." ''... a square wants to come on hip... talks about 'pod' and smokes it now and then.''

What are your favorite slang terms for cannabis? Do you remember what you first heard it referred to as? Take a second to share in the comments section below.

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