The Word Nerd: Varieties of Cannabis and their hazy, crazy etymologies

Boston Sunday HeraldMarch 26, 1967: According to one Federal Narcotics Bureau agent, California ‘is flooded with marijuana’, which is better known by the increasing numbers who smoke it as ‘pot,’ ‘grass,’ and ‘Mary J.’.

It was sometime around March 26, 1967, that I indulged in cannabis for the first time, and it has been over 50 years since my last joint. Since I metamorphosed into a law-abiding citizen when I turned 30, I have refrained from using the weed ever since but as the substance is now legal in Canada, I might indulge in it after a long period of abstinence, but my preference is to ingest it within a cookie rather than taking it into my lungs. As the above 52 year-old headline makes clear, cannabis has been known by several names that keep a-changin.’ Growing up in the 60s, the term grass was common but one doesn’t hear this designation often nowadays.

While the origins of terms such as grass and weed are obvious, the etymology of other terms, similar to the effect cannabis often causes, are rather hazy. For example, one might imagine that the term pot is somehow connected to a potted plant, however the OED relates that it enjoys “an uncertain and disputed” etymology: “The most popular theory explains the word as being derived  from the Mexican Spanish words potiguaya ‘cannabis leaves,’ or potación de guaya, literally ‘drink of grief,’ supposedly denoting a drink of wine or brandy in which marijuana buds were steeped; however, no corroborating evidence has been found to support the use of any of these terms in Spanish (although potiguaya is recorded in an English glossary of drug terminology slightly earlier than the earliest example of the word in 1936.” Alternatively, however (and more boringly) the OED says that it could derive from the sense of pot as a roundish container. As for the term “doobie” that refers to a marijuana cigarette, all the OED states as to its source is “origin unknown.”

However, J.E. Lighter in his Historical Dictionary of American Slang proffers the idea that the word comes from “dobby,” an attachment to a loom for weaving small figures.

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Not surprisingly, the OED relates that “marijuana” is a borrowing from the Spanish mariguana, or marihuana but states that the Spanish origin is uncertain. One theory, however states that the Spanish word originated from the Aztec language Nahuatl’s word from “prisoner,” mallihuan.

I noticed on Google Ngrams, which charts the frequency of words in the English language, that the term “reefer” reached its popularity high in 1942. This is probably because in 1936 a film called Reefer Madness was released whose melodramatic theme alerted adolescents to the grave consequences lest they are lured by drug pushers to ingest marijuana. Among the possible
effects elucidated in this didactic film were hallucinations, hit-and-run accidents, attempted rapes and an inevitable descent into madness caused by addiction.

Once again, a definitive etymology is elusive but the term most likely derives from the Mexican Spanish grifa, a term for cannabis. An alternate theory though sees the term coming from the word “reef” which can refer to a section of a sail on account of the cigarette resembling rolled-up sailcloth.

“Ganja” is yet still another name for cannabis. Although the term is often associated with the West Indies, the word derives from India and comes from the Hindi word ganjha. For the term “joint,” the OED merely says“marijuana cigarette”but when the drug sense of the word was first used in the 1930s, the OED informs that it referred to the “hypodermic equipment used by drug addicts.”

Finally, if you guessed that the reference to “colitas” in the lyric “warm smell of colitas rising up in the air” by The Eagles in their classic Hotel California is to marijuana, you are correct. Colitas in Spanish means little tails and in Mexican slang it refers to the buds of cannabis.

Parkinson’s and cannabis

Cummings Centre will hold a
conference on medical cannabis use in Parkinson’s care and research, May 1, 10am-3pm at the Gelber Centre, 5700 Westbury. $40 with lunch. To register: 514-734-1819.


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