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The Evolution of Cannabis Slang Terminology

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If it’s true that the best-loved child has many names, cannabis must be one of Mother Earth’s favorite children. Jonathon Green, who wrote the definitive Green’s Dictionary of Slang, estimates that there are at least 1,000 different names for weed — and that’s just in English. Have you ever wondered where pot, bud, joint and other names for weed came from? Check out this compilation of slang for weed to find out.

Why Are There So Many Names for Weed?

Considering its checkered history, it’s not surprising that weed has had many aliases. The plant that’s officially known as cannabis sativa (or cannabis indica, depending on your point of reference) was illegal for the better part of the 20th century, and is still illegal, either for all uses or for some uses, in many U.S. states and in other countries. Those who indulged couldn’t just openly talk about buying or smoking marijuana where others might overhear, so they came up with creative code names for weed. Of course, it didn’t take long for those names to become known, which meant coming up with other names for weed. Add in the human propensity for assigning affectionate nicknames to people and substances that make them feel good, and you have the perfect staging ground to launch a veritable dictionary of slang for weed and everything concerning it.

From Reefer to Mary Jane: Classic Slang for Weed

The genesis of some slang terms for cannabis is pretty obvious — wacky tabacky, for example. It doesn’t take much research to figure out how that name came about. You smoke it like tobacco and it makes you act wacky. Case closed. But what about some of the more esoteric terms for marijuana? In fact, what about marijuana? Or pot? Let’s take a trip down Etymology Lane.

Marijuana and Its Derivative Weed Names

While the name marijuana is enshrined in U.S. law, it’s actually just another slang term for cannabis. In his slang dictionary, Green says its etymological origin is uncertain — it may come from the Mexican word mariguano or the Panamanian word managuango, both of which mean intoxicant”. It came into common usage in the United States around the time of the Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910. Mexican migrant workers, fleeing the war and seeking work in the border states, popularized the use of marijuana and their name for it.

That foreign-sounding name may have played a central part in turning weed into one of the biggest targets of 20th century drug enforcement legislation. Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, played on anti-immigrant sentiment that grew in the wake of the Great Depression, to characterize marijuana as an evil drug invading the U.S. along with the waves of Mexican immigrants. According to John Collins, coordinator of the LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, Anslinger deliberately used the term marijuana when talking to legislators and the press because it very much helped to portray drugs as something external, something that is invading the U.S. He would use the term marijuana’ knowing that it sounds Hispanic, it sounds foreign.”

It worked. By the 1930s, most states had enacted laws criminalizing the use, possession or sale of marijuana, and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 essentially made the use of cannabis illegal throughout the U.S. and permanently enshrined marijuana as a name for weed in the country’s code of law. Marijuana led naturally to other derivative names for weed: Mary Jane, MJ, Aunt Mary, Dona Juanita and Lady Jane among them.

If It Looks Like Weed and Acts Like Weed…

Lots of slang names for weed come from its appearance. In the 1960s and 1970s, when pot usually took the form of dried, crumbled leaves and stems, weed was commonly referred to as grass. Likewise, we likely refer to cannabis as weed because it looks and acts like a weed. And while weed feels like a relatively contemporary name for pot, it has a long history. Don Bowman originally recorded Wildwood Weed in 1964. The song about a pair of brothers who discovered cannabis growing in their yard hit the Top 40 when Jim Stafford recorded it as the Wildwood Flower in 1974, making his brother Bill, naked and singing on the windmill, part of weed history. Some other names for weed that come from the way it looks include bud (which led to Buddha), nugs (for nuggets of gold, which buds resemble), green, tea and herb.

But Why Do We Call Weed…?

Some names for weed are a little more convoluted. Take pot, for example. It may be one of the best-known nicknames for cannabis, but why? Here are a few other terms that made their way into the weed lexicon via foreign languages.

Pot comes from potiguaya, a South American concoction made by soaking cannabis leaves in wine, brandy or other liquor.

Reefer — There are two competing theories about the origin of reefer as slang for weed. The Oxford Dictionary associates reefer with sailing, noting the similarity of a joint to a reefed (rolled up) sail. The sailor who rolls the sail is referred to as a reefer. The second says that it comes from the Mexican slang term for someone under the influence of pot, grifo. According to this theory, grifo refers to tangled, frizzy hair. Time magazine suggests that it’s because your brain gets fuzzy like your hair when you smoke, but this author wonders if it might not be a reference to dreadlocks, which have long been associated with weed culture.

Ganja did not originate in Jamaica, though it’s largely associated with the island culture and Rastafarianism today. The word is Sanskrit for hemp, making a pretty obvious connection for etymologists. It traveled with indentured servants and slaves from the East Indies, where there is a history of ganja as a sacred plant, to Jamaica, where it eventually became part of Rastafarian culture.

Other Marijuana Slang Terms

Of course, cannabis slang doesn’t end with names for weed. There’s a wealth of terms associated with using pot, and that wealth is constantly morphing and growing as people coin new terms. This is far from a comprehensive dictionary of cannabis terms, but it’s a start.

Blunt — traditionally, a hollowed out (or unwrapped) cigar refilled with cannabis. The term likely comes from Phillies Blunts, the cigars that were most commonly used for making…blunts, of course. Other names for blunts include spliff (which may refer to a blunt where pot is mixed with tobacco), and a Dutch, from another brand of cigar commonly used to make blunts and spliffs.

Blaze — getting high

Bogart — hogging a joint, named for Humphrey Bogart’s habit of keeping a cigarette dangling from his lip while he talked

Joint — a common name for marijuana rolled in rolling paper like a cigarette. Also called a jay, J, doobie, bone or fatty

Roach — the end of a joint, probably named for its resemblance to the bug

Wake and bake — a morning ritual, akin to that first cup of coffee. According to a 2017 global drug study, Americans are the unqualified champions of the wake and bake.

Whatever you call your cannabis, there is one thing that’s certain. As cannabis culture becomes more and more legally and socially acceptable, there will only be more fond nicknames for weed and all of its attendant activities.

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