When it comes to the etymology of “marihuana,” the most commonly accepted theory is that Spanish-speaking Mexicans adopted the word from another language. Many believe that language was Chinese.
Mexico experienced a mass Chinese immigration in the late 1800s, many of whom worked on the railroad, and the 1893 Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation enticed Chinese immigrants by giving them the same legal rights as Mexican nationals. Ironically, many of the Chinese actually arrived from the United States where they originally migrated. Cannabis likely first grew in Central Asia, and findings suggest it arrived in China not long after. “Ma ren hua” roughly means “hemp seed flowers” in Chinese, and Mexicans possibly adopted the term as “marihuana” in Spanish. Adding weight to this theory, oregano chino—or “Chinese oregano”—was possibly another slang term for cannabis in Mexico, highlighting the connection between cannabis and Chinese culture.
Several other theories also exist. Portugal took many slaves from West African countries like Angola, which has a long history with cannabis, and brought them to Brazil. The Bantu dialect in Angola refers to cannabis as ma’kaña, which the Brazilian Portuguese adopted as maconha. Similarly, others suggested the term comes from old Portuguese words maran guango that suggest intoxication. These words, when adopted into Spanish, could change to marihuana. While it is unclear how the term came to Mexico, this theory at least puts the origin of marihuana in Latin America.
Still, others suggest the term marihuana arose from an indigenous language such as the Uto-Aztecan Nahuatl or Andean Quechua. Arch prohibitionist Harry Anslinger popularized the theory that marihuana comes from the Nahuatl word mallihuan (prisoner), but linguists have largely dismissed this theory.
Another strong possibility is that the foreign-language word remains of unknown origin, and a small group in Western Mexico adopted it as marihuana in Spanish. When the Mexican Revolution started in 1910, many nationals migrated to the United States, some of whom brought the slang term with them. Decades later, English-speakers changed the spelling to marijuana, which is the common usage today.
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