The Roots of Cannabis Slang

By Jak Hutchcraft on October 22, 2017

Herb, pot, piff, chong, kush, dope, ganja—we’ve all got our pet name for the holy smoke. Jonathon Green is a lexicographer and historian with a particular fascination with slang, and back in 2002, he put together a compendium of all the slang words for cannabis he could find. Journeying through counterculture, crime, spirituality and ancient China, the book is the only comprehensive dictionary of words for the wild weed and their etymology. PRØHBTD visited him in his flat in London and, surrounded by his admirable library of books, asked about his findings. 

Hello Jonathon. For those who don’t know you, can you please introduce yourself?

Hi, in recent years, which for me is the last 30, I’ve been a lexicographer of slang. In other words, I’ve been writing slang dictionaries. My original one came out in 2010, and the most recent one came out last year, and it is called, unsurprisingly, Green’s Dictionary of Slang

How did you get 'round to writing the book about cannabis slang? 

Well, I was part of the counterculture and underground press in ’69, which was quite late. I edited and worked on various newspapers and publications, like the U.K. branch of Rolling Stone, which was around for a short period. I wrote a book for the International Times called The IT Book of DRUGS, and in 1986, I wrote a book called Days In The Life, which was an oral history of that hippy period in London that was riddled with cannabis and all sorts of other things. Then, in 2001, an editor of mine asked if I’d be interested in writing a book about cannabis, and I said yes. It’s been translated into Hungarian, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, and Spanish. 

What was your attitude toward smoking weed growing up?

When working for the underground press, we’d get up in the morning and have a joint, have a cup of tea, smoke another joint, roll one for the taxi—god knows why, but we used to get taxis all the time—get into the office, have another joint, and we’d spend the whole day like that before finally having one to go to sleep with at four in the morning with a couple of chillems. People used to smoke continually, and I’m sure they still do. There was a lot of it around—it was one of the great pillars of the counterculture. The places you used to get it from were all the old hippy trail countries, but they’ve all closed off.  

Do you still smoke?

I’d say my smoking days are kind of over. It all got too strong for me, and I couldn’t deal with skunk. I remember my wife and I were in India in the '90s, and my eldest son gave me a hit off a joint. My jet lag mixed with the strong skunk was way more than I could deal with. (Laughs.) I’m not of the generation with all these specially engineered types of cannabis—that’s another world for me.

So, what is the first mention of cannabis in history that you could find?

There’s a village in Taiwan, part of what became known as China, where there’s archaeological evidence of cannabis being used as hemp dating back 10,000 years! Until about 1,500 years ago, cannabis was also a food, known as a pseudocereal, ranked among one of the "five grains" that represented the basic Chinese diet, along with rice, millet and soybeans. 

The first mention of it is in China in 2700 BC, when its name was Ma, a name that had changed by 1000 AD to Ta Ma, meaning "great hemp."

1904 newspaper clippingThe oldest remains of its existence are 6000 years old. Pieces of coarse hempen cloth were found at some of the earliest sites of human habitation. Other early evidence includes 3,000 to 4,000 year-old specimens found in Egypt and fabrics dug up near Ankara in Turkey dating to the eighth century B.C. The consensus is that cannabis is so early a plant that its first existence simply defies research but that it originated in central Asia or India.

Wow! What about religious significance?

You can find serious religious use for centuries. You can find it as a medicinal thing in shamanistic texts from 500 BC, and they reference it being used much earlier. It gradually arrived in Europe, and a lot of it has to do with hemp as a fiber. The Scythians, who were based around the Black Sea around 600 BC, used it for ritualistic and recreational purposes. Plant drugs would be thrown onto fires, you’d breathe it in and you’d get into some kind of trance. During a dig at the Pazyryk Valley of central Siberia, archaeologists found a bronze cauldron filled with burnt hemp seeds and some metal censers apparently designed for inhaling marijuana smoke. In Nepal, hemp even transcended earthly life. Sacrificial vessels would be filled with hemp seed and other grains for use in the afterlife, and they’d be placed beside a corpse at funerals.

Can you tell us a little about the etymology of some of the most popular terms? 

I have collected around 1,000 different names for cannabis. I’d say they’re all from the 20th century, and the majority are from 1950 onwards. You have to differentiate between the general names and the specifics. For example, a specific name would be like Black Pak, which I remember was a common name for dark Pakistani hashish. 

"Pot" comes from Potiguaya, which is Mexican Spanish for marijuana leaves. There was a short period when Americans called it "pod" through the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and then it stops. 

"Dope" is complex and much more interesting. Nobody's quite sure. It could’ve come from the Dutchword doup, which means sauce, or standard English daub, meaning the grease used on wagons… something sticky. First you get dope meaning sauce or gravy, then by the middle of the 19th century, it has somehow become medicine related. Then it came to mean anything that wasn’t prescribed by a doctor, and phrases like, “Perfume dope that will bring back your peaches and cream” can be found. In 1883 we get it meaning opium for the first time. By the 1960s, dope was used to mean cannabis. Like with all slang, it’s a development, a slow process of change, that gets adopted and used and changed over time.

"Reefer" is an interesting story. "Give me a reefer and a gang of gin," sang Bessie Smith in 1923. It comes from the Mexican-Spanish word greefo, which was originally for frizzy or tangled hair, so it was used to describe being stoned like mental fuzziness or frizziness. It then became reefer, which started to pop up in the 1920s. It wasn’t used much in the '60s and '70s, but it had been big in the '30s and '40s, and the beatniks used it. But I remember I went to the U.S. in 1970 and some friends used the term, but they were older, and they were more beats than hippies. 

"Marijuana" was never really a slang word, but it seems to have come from the Mexican mariguano or Panamanian managuango, both of which mean intoxicant.

"Mary Jane" is a slang for marijuana. It can be found in the British Daily Express from 1928 with the headline, "What is Marijuana? The deadly Mexican drug also known as Mary Jane." Mary Jane is pretty obsolete now, but people use these dead words as a joke sometimes. You seem to stick with the slang you used between the ages of 15 and about 25, usually, and it grows old with you.

"Weed" is another one that just got borrowed. In 1607, it meant tobacco, then in 1845, it meant cigar, and in 1848, it meant a cigarette… 1904 is the first instance I can find of it meaning marijuana.

"Spliff"—the first recorded use of the word goes back to 1930s Jamaica and the West Indies. I suggest that spliff could have come from "spifflicate," which means to beat up, but I’m not sure. That’s one word I never worked out fully.

"Ganja," or "ganga," comes from India, and it is the Hindi word for hemp. The earliest reference that I found in an English source was in the book The Hasheesh-Eater from 1857 and then in the American magazine called Harbours in 1858. 

Did you come across any unusual terms?

I like "Electric Lettuce," which was first seen on the Marijuana Message Board in 2002, written by somebody calling themselves OldSkewlRewlz. 

"In a balloon room without a parachute" is one of those strange, American, mid-19th century phrases. A lot of slang came out of Harlem, and there was a book called The Jiver’s Bible by Dan Burley, who was a Black jazz journalist, and he’s got some wonderful stuff in there. The original book of Harlem Jive, and in there, it has balloon room, a room where you go to get high! (Laughs).

"Cabbage" is someone who’s stoned, like a vegetable, which is U.S. college campus slang, to get cabbaged.

How does it differ throughout the world and throughout cultures?

My own sense is that it changes [with similar themes] much like all slang does around the world, so with sex, it’s always "man hits woman," "penis" is always knife, club, dagger or general boy’s toy. "Vagina" is always a scary, dark, hole, possibly with teeth. Man is always "not all there." I would bet that imagery and words you’ll get for cannabis are the same in French or Indian or German slang, the equivalent of dope or grass or herb and so on and so forth. The American slang has obviously come over to the U.K. There is British cannabis slang, but a lot came from America since World War II and a lot from African-American culture.

At the end of the day, you’ve got this plant or a brown chunk that makes us sleepy or giggly, and we’ve probably only got a limited capacity to come up with words for it. One of the reasons you have a lot of words for it, and huge lists from American drug authorities, is because slang is made to be secret. Today, slang isn’t so secret anymore. The premise is still that you have an illegal substance, you give it a name so it can be talked about without the authorities knowing, they find out about it, and you come up with a new name for it. 

It is interesting that it had homes and significance all over the world before it hit the U.S. and Europe.

Well, it can grow anywhere and everywhere within a big temperature band. It’s not called a weed for nothing!

True. Thanks Jonathon!

Follow Jak on Twitter: @Jak_TH. The July 1904 clipping from Indianapolis News is the earliest "weed" reference that Green has uncovered to date. 

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