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Cannabis 101

Why is cannabis called…

03.29.22 - 4 min read

Summary: 

  1. Cannabis has over 1000 different slang terms. 
  2. Manly slang terms originated from the terms for cannabis from China, India, Greece, Egypt, etc. 
  3. If you’re not sure if a slang word is appropriate to use, stick to using the “cannabis” term instead.
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Understanding different names for the plant, including “marijuana” 

Few plants seem to have inspired as many nicknames as cannabis. Owing to its widespread use within cultures throughout the world, cannabis is associated with a truly massive number of terms.  

From Mary Jane to weed and pot, the list goes on, and the origin stories of these terms vary widely. While the exact beginnings of some names remain a mystery, others reflect the historical journey of the plant and its usage. 

In fact, one of the most common alternative names for cannabis, “marijuana,” is tied directly to the prohibition of the plant in early 20th century America, as well as the racial issues surrounding it. 

Before we take a deep dive into the word marijuana and decode alternative terms, let’s get a better understanding of the origin of the plant name cannabis.  

Cannabis etymology 

Every slang name for cannabis is unique to the culture and language that originated it. Consequently, there are many variations of certain terms. The plant has had widespread use for millennia and this is reflected in the original etymology.  

The word cannabis is derived from a Scythian or Thracian word that was later adopted by the Persians and turned into “kanab. [Source] 

It was then transformed into “kánnavis by the Greeks before becoming “cannabis in Latin. However, the first culture to mention cannabis in writing was the ancient Chinese. Eventually, the use of the plant spread worldwide and even the ancient Egyptians used cannabis (or “shemshemet as they called it) for medical purposes; meanwhile, the ancient Hebrew people called cannabis “kaneh bosem. This rich lineage of cannabis culture may come as a surprise to those more familiar with stigma that’s surrounded the plant in the modern history of the United States. 

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Origin of the word marijuana 

While the use of cannabis has ancient origins, the first appearance of the word “marijuana” has more modern, controversial roots. 

An Anglicization of the Spanish words “marihuana” or “mariguana,” marijuana as a term doesn’t seem to have existed in the United States prior to 1910. While the history is complicated, it’s typically traced back to Mexican immigrants, who are often credited with bringing the recreational use of cannabis to the U.S. in the early 20th century. 

Though recreational cannabis use was initially legal, in 1913, the first U.S. bill was passed to criminalize the cultivation of marijuana to regulate production. Consequently, this paved the way for the full-on prohibition that came about during the Great Depression in the 1930s, which is now often characterized as a form of oppression against Mexicans and other minority and immigrant populations.  

The term marijuana is thought to have come into common usage in the U.S. as a kind of propaganda driven by the political and racial mechanizations behind cannabis prohibition. Although the word marijuana is still widely used in America, the issues that surround its origin remain complicated. [Source] 

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Why is cannabis called “pot”? 

If you’re wondering how marijuana got the name pot, you’re not alone—it’s a common cannabis question. Here’s the most widely accepted answer: 

Origin: “Pot” is likely the shortened version of the Spanish words “potiguaya” or “potaguaya,” and it became a common slang term in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s. 

Backstory: These words were initially applied to a Spanish wine or brandy called potación de guaya which has had cannabis buds steeped in it. The name means “the drink of grief.” It could possibly also refer to a teapot that was used to make cannabis-infused tea. [Source] 

Usability: Although the word has been in common usage throughout the remainder of the 20th century, its popularity started to decline during the first decade of the 21st century. 

Why is cannabis called “weed”? 

Generally, a weed is considered to be an undesired, uncultivated plant. So, why would anyone want to associate cannabis with weed?  

Origin: The term weed started being used for cannabis at the start of the 20th century. 

Backstory: It likely stems from the shortened version of the word “locoweed,” which is a species of plant that grows in Mexico. Cattle and horses would eat this plant, and it would have a strange effect on them. Although this plant is not the same as cannabis, the word was used interchangeably to refer to both plants at the time when the aforementioned 1913 bill was passed. 

Usability: “Weed” is an even more common name for cannabis (vs. “pot”). In fact, use actually increased during the first decade of the 21st century. 

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Why is cannabis called “hemp”? 

You may have heard people refer to cannabis or marijuana as hemp. But are they really the same thing? 

Origin: Hemp comes from the Old English words “henep or “hænep but is also related to the Germanic word “hanf” and Dutch “hennep.” 

Backstory: Hemp and cannabis are technically the same plants, but with one small difference. Even though they look and smell the same, hemp contains less of the psychoactive compound THC than cannabis. So, where cannabis is used for its medicinal properties, hemp is used for a wide variety of textile properties. 

Usability: Since hemp and marijuana are two different plants of the same species, the term hemp is typically used only when referring to an actual hemp plant or material. 

Why is cannabis called “Mary Jane”? 

“Mary Jane” is an iconic term for cannabis. But just how did it come about? 

Origin: The name “Mary Jane” for cannabis was first publicly featured in a 1943 TIME magazine article. However, the true origin is rather hazy. 

Backstory: Mary Jane seems to be the English variation of the Spanish name “Maria Juana” which is a feminization of the word marijuana. While there is no specific source for this slang term, the root word connection to marijuana seems like the most plausible explanation. [Source] 

Usability: While “Mary Jane” probably peaked in popularity decades ago, this affectionate moniker that depicts the cannabis plant as a feminine entity is still widely understood. 

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Why is cannabis called “hash”? 

If you’ve heard cannabis called hash then you may think the words are interchangeable, but hash is actually another form of the plant. 

Origin: Hash originates from the Arabic word “hashish which roughly translated means “grass.” The term has been in use since about 900 AD. 

Backstory: Hash is a concentrated form of cannabis made from the resinous glands on the surface of the cannabis plant. This resin is collected on the hands of cannabis farmers and then compressed into blocks known as hash. This form of cannabis was introduced to the western world at the turn of the 19th century as a result of European exploration in Africa. [Source] 

Usability: Because “hash” is a different form of cannabis, the term should be used exclusively to refer to the compressed block form. 

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Sources:

  1. Cannabis | Origin and meaning of cannabis by Online Etymology Dictionary 
  2. Leafly.com | What is Hash? 
  3. Brand, E. J., & Zhao, Z. (2017). Cannabis in Chinese Medicine: Are Some Traditional Indications Referenced in Ancient Literature Related to Cannabinoids?. Frontiers in pharmacology, 8, 108. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2017.00108 
  4. Jstor.org | The Marijuana Myth in Ancient Egypt  
  5. Leafly.com | The Origin & History of the Word “Marijuana” 
  6. Npr.org | The Mysterious History Of ‘Marijuana’ : Code Switch  
  7. Vice.com | How to Infuse Booze with Weed 
  8. Ganjapreneur.com | The Word Ganja: Origins and Meaning  
  9. Merryjane.com | Why Do We Refer to Weed as “Mary Jane” and Where Did the Nickname Come From? 
  10. Hystory.com | History of Marijuana 
  11. History of cannabis – Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics 
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