Marijuana: What's In a Name?

By David Jenison

Marijuana: What's In a Name?

Few people know more about the geographical history of cannabis than Dr. Barney Warf, a professor in the Geography and Atmospheric Science department at the University of Kansas. Historians know that cannabis flooded the southwestern states in the early 20th century when the Mexican revolution drove many of the country’s nationals across the border into the United States. Several immigrants arrived both with cannabis and the Spanish slang “marijuana.” Harry Anslinger popularized the term marijuana in the 1930s through his prohibition campaign, but before that, the word was exceedingly rare. For this reason, no one is certain about its etymology. Many historians suggest marijuana was an adopted, Latinized word from Chinese, Bantu, Portuguese or even an indigenous language in modern-day Latin America. We asked Dr. Warf, and he takes a different position.  

“I have come across the many different hypotheses that the word itself comes from various possible languages,” he noted, “but I have never seen a convincing account of any of those. I think that it's simply a version of the Spanish María and Juana, which is a very common name in much of Latin America. Frequently, women have two first names. It was probably a slang term that was being used somewhere in Latin America and then got popularized. I tend to use the word cannabis rather than marijuana because marijuana is just one of a number of nicknames for it. Weed, ganja and others. I'm very skeptical of theories that the word marijuana came from any other language besides Spanish.”

Examples of María Juanas include the 14th-century noblewoman María Juana de Padilla and the Catholic saint Mother Juana María Condesa Lluch, while Duchess Marie Jeanne and Archduchess Maria Johanna Gabriela both have names that translate as María Juana in Spanish. In fact, Northeast Argentina has a town called María Juana.

In reference to other slang terms, Dr. Warf also commented on “ganja.” He continued, “The word ganja, which is also another commonly used word, is cognate with the word Ganges, the Ganges River. It speaks to the popularity of cannabis in Northern India. There's even a deity called the Ganga, which is associated with cannabis smoking in India. That's a very different term. Somehow that Indian word became popular among the Jamaicans. Ganja is a Hindi word, but it became popular in Jamaica and particularly among the Rastafarians.”

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