The Latin name is either cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, or cannabis ruderalis, and it’s been in use for over eight thousand years. Whether you call it weed, ganja, or marijuana, you’ve probably wondered where all this different cannabis slang came from. Some were the result of different people discovering cannabis independently of each other, some came about through the intermingling of those cultures, and others developed as a kind of code to keep the purchase and consumption of cannabis a secret during Prohibition. Let us take you on a tour of some of the terminology you might hear when people talk about cannabis.
The first English use of the term weed to refer to the reefer was in 1929, when the quarterly journal American Speech included it in their “Among the New Words” column as meaning, “marijuana cigarette.” In 1932, the Chicago Defender reported, “The humble ‘reefer,’ ‘the weed,’ the marijuana, or what have you by way of a name for a doped cigarette has moved to Park Ave. from Harlem.” By calling it weed, cannabis users were able to speak freely about the plant at a time when its use was being publicly debated.
Cannabis is not actually a weed, because “weed” isn’t the name of any specific family of plants. It really just refers to a plant that is unwanted in a given context. Clover is considered a weed for people who like nice, trim lawns, but it’s a cash crop for honeybee farmers. You would only call cannabis a weed in the conventional sense if you found a lot of it growing where you didn’t want any, in which case, call us. We can take it off your hands. (Just kidding, the city super doesn’t let us go around pickup up plants, and it makes us sad too.)
This one is super cool. You’ve probably heard of ganja in conjunction with Rastafarianism, but that’s not actually where it started. Check this out, it actually started in India. The word ganja originates from Sanskrit, and referred to a plant consumed by the Hindu god Shiva. In 1833, Great Britain started transporting laborers from India to all sorts plantations, sending over 30,000 to Jamaica. These indentured servants worked in the fields alongside former African slaves and shared their spiritual practice of smoking ganja.
This observation of cannabis as a religious rite combined with the Jamaicans’ desire to resist oppressive societal structures led to the development of Rastafarianism in the 1930’s. Ganja is still the preferred terminology in many Reggae songs that celebrate its use and call for its widespread legalization.
Ganja isn’t the only term with history, and marijuana’s past is far from pleasant. Over the course of the ten-year Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), many political exiles and war refugees fled to the Southwest United States to escape the violence. Searching for stability and employment, they found jobs in mining and agriculture, where they worked the fields. The Mexican Spanish word for cannabis is marihuana, and U.S. politicians who wanted to demonize the drug latched onto the exotic-sounding variation, marijuana.
Cannabis was already widely available in a variety of tinctures and other legal medicines, but the debate about marijuana was framed to make it sound like a different drug altogether. Harry J. Anslinger launched massive campaigns against this “loco weed,” sowing fear and misinformation into the public mindset, leading ultimately to full-on Reefer Madness.
Maybe you prefer just pot to marijuana or ganja. It’s short, it’s sweet, but it’s kind of strange, isn’t it? The cannabis plant doesn’t resemble a pot in any way, pots aren’t used in its preparation (except for maybe the traditional Indian beverage bhang, or modern extraction methods,) so where does the name come from?
As it turns out, pot probably comes from a Mexican Spanish word, potiguaya, which may itself be a shortening of “potación de guayaya,” meaning “drink of grief”. This beverage was prepared by steeping cannabis buds in wine,—at least, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s proven difficult to track down any actual examples of the term being used in print before Chester Himes wrote, “She made him smoke pot and when he got jagged…she put him on the street” in his 1938 short story, The Way We Live Now. Yes we did do that much research, we know our stuff.
We all know a joint refers to a marijuana cigarette, but this is another term with a disputed origin. The European practice of making a marijuana cigarette originally meant combining hashish—an extract from of cannabis resin—with tobacco to keep it burning. In Old French, jointiz means “close together,” or “joined together,” so it could be a reference to this method of combination.
By 1877, joint had become slang for a building or place, and began to refer specifically to opium dens in the United States around 1883. Opium users started calling their drug paraphernalia their joint, so it’s possible that the terminology just carried over.
Cigarette rolling papers are also joined together to make a longer smoke,—a joint—and if it was rolled poorly, the end result would look kind of like an elbow joint. There are a lot of reasons to call them joints.
“A pinched-off smoke, or a stub, is a roach,” according to Meyer Berger, who was the first writer to use the term. Berger was writing about the fast-paced and ever-changing world of cannabis slang in Harlem in 1938. Roach may be so-called because of its physical resemblance to the common cockroach, but it could also be a reference to a small fish from the carp family.
This is the most literal cannabis terminology, as it is a direct transliteration of the Thai word baung, meaning “cylindrical wooden tube”. In the 1944 Thai-English Dictionary, (yes, we also did look up a historical Thai dictionary to get you more information), it is described as “a bamboo water pipe for smoking kancha, tree, hashish, or the hemp-plant,” but its modern use didn’t really begin until Vietnam War veterans brought the practice back with them from their time in the service.
Now, bongs are made from a range of materials like silicone, glass, and acrylic, but they all expand on the same premise of a cylindrical tube filled with water, a bowl to hold the cannabis as it’s ignited, and a downstem to carry the smoke through the water chamber, filtering and cooling it for more comfortable consumption. We wrote a whole article about the different ways to consume cannabis.
There are so many more slang terms for cannabis, but these are the ones we like the most. You’ll notice that, here at Pot Mates, we prefer cannabis over all of the alternative cannabis slang since it’s specific, accurate, and doesn’t stigmatize specific groups of people. It is also easier to say after a few. What words do you use to describe cannabis? Did we miss any that should be included in this list?
Looking for more cannabis blogs to read? Our list of the best foods to eat when you have the munchies is a good place to go. Just remember, the four real food groups are sweet, salty, chewy, and crunchy. You don’t need any more than that. Like, physically you do, but emotionally that’s enough.