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The Origin of Slang Terms and Nicknames for Marijuana

May 23, 2023

Kush. The Green Goddess. 420. Few–if any–products have the infinite number of nuanced nicknames quite like marijuana. While the more formal “cannabis” captures the current zeitgeist regarding marijuana, history has no shortage of slang terms for the plant or its uses. Here’s a look at how an evolving lexicon has labeled cannabis over the years. 

The Significance of Slang

While the earliest indications about hempen fabric date back as far as 3000 BC, one of the first terms we see referring to it is qunabu, which comes from ancient Assyrian and is thought to be the origin of the word cannabis

So why didn’t cannabis just keep its ancient designation? Other items that have been around just as long–sugar, for example–never experienced the divergence of nomenclature. What’s the difference?

Linguistically, slang tends to develop when there is some sort of conflict. Slang allows people to ridicule, revere, or reference people, items, or practices in a way that avoids direct acknowledgement or confrontation. By using unconventional words or seemingly unrelated terms, people can communicate without drawing attention.

Throughout history, social acceptance of cannabis consumption has vacillated widely, and its adjacent language has evolved to reflect its conflicted past. Unable to freely or comfortably discuss marijana, people within the cannabis community developed alternative terminology that deflected attention from their actual topic. 

So why has sugar stayed “sugar”? Because consumption of sugar has never been socially contested.

What’s in a Name?

The earliest reference to cannabis in the English language is ganja, an ancient Sanskrit word that traveled with enslaved Indians (and their knowledge of cannabis) to British-controlled Jamaica during the colonial period between the 17th and 19th centuries. Ganja remains Jamaica’s most widely-used slang term for the plant.

The Mexican Influence

The early 1910s and Prohibition first saw the rise of the term weed, but it was the Mexican Revolution of 1910 that introduced the slang term that has become synonymous with cannabis, if not its more popular replacement: marijuana.  As Mexican immigrants made their way to the US following the political unrest, they brought with them not only cannabis products but also their terminology. It’s unclear exactly where the word marijuana came from, but it’s most widely believed to have originated from the words managuango or mariguano, both of which describe something that is intoxicating. Unfortunately, because racial injustice tied violence and crime to the Mexican immigrant population, marijuana’s reputation also began to suffer. Some enthusiasts choose not to refer to the hemp plant as marijuana in protest of the racial injustice that Mexican natives suffered.

The Impact of Film

Public opinion of marijuana gradually degraded over time, but it wasn’t until the 1936 film Reefer Madness that the slang term reefer came to be associated with cannabis. It’s most likely that this word came from the term “to reef,” which is a sailing word that means to roll up a sail. (Rolling a sail is similar, evidently, to rolling a joint.)

The term pot also arose around this time, likely from the Spanish influence of potación de guaya, a glass of wine infused with hemp.

The ‘60s Rebound

By the 1960s, plenty of slang terms had crept into regular use. However, it wasn’t until the “flower power” countercultural movement of the 1960s that cannabis would truly see an explosion in terminology. Enthusiasts attempted to reinvent how marijuana was perceived, focusing on favorable words like flower and grass. Travelers to India seeking an experience on the “hippie trail” also brought back Hindu Kush plants, from which the term kush became increasingly popular.

Cannabis: Riding a Current of Change

Our brief history here only begins to scratch the surface of the many slang words that describe the illustrious hemp plant. Terms like “dank”, “420,” and, later, “blazed” emerged in the ‘90s, mostly as the impact of marijuana expanded into new generations. And, while cannabis production and consumption have gathered the occasional slang word over the course of history, the variety of vocabulary didn’t really begin in full force until the war on drugs, as the demonization of cannabis products drove enthusiasts to find new and innovative ways to communicate without incurring punishment or judgment. 

The language of cannabis, like all language, continues to evolve, and so does the political and social sentiment surrounding it. Thanks to the proliferation of medical marijuana and a more clinical and academic approach to cannabis, scientific terms like cannabinoids are making their home in the general vernacular, while the word terpenes follows the professional cultivation and refining of specific strains.

Start Your Journey with Medical and Recreational Cannabis from Freedom Road

No matter what you call it, cannabis continues to be many people’s first choice for everything from pain relief to recreation, and at Freedom Road, we’re proud to offer cannabis products of uncompromising quality. We’re a certified, full-service dispensary and grow house with locations in Colorado and Oklahoma committed to helping our customers understand, appreciate and enjoy marijuana’s vast and vibrant history. Our experienced staff is here to help guide you on your journey to freedom with products and strains designed for creating the optimal experience. Visit us today to find out more!