Marijuana is a plant of many names. Some, like “Mary Jane” (a play on the word itself), are obvious as to their origins. But it’s a little more tricky to understand where others came from. Maybe they came from different languages or found their roots in religion, while others were born out of a need to conceal activities during a century of prohibition. Regardless of how they originated, these colloquialisms have found their way into popular culture and the mainstream dialogue around cannabis reform.
One of the oldest terms for marijuana, “ganja” is still one of the most used. The term is often associated with the Rastafarian religion, but it actually goes back much further than that to the Sanskrit word for the hemp plant. The plant and its terminology came to Jamaica as a by-product of British Colonialism when colonialists brought Indian and African servants to the island to work the plantations in the mid 1800s.
While “kush” is also the name given to several strains of marijuana, it’s been used as a catch-all for high-grade weed. The origins of the term come from the original plants grown in the Hindu Kush region, which stretches along the Afghanistan and Pakistan border.
Even though marijuana isn’t a weed in the strictest sense, “weed” still managed to become the primary slang term for the plant over the course of the 20th century. The origins of the term relate to both how fast and easily the plant grows, as well as its cultural position as an illegal substance. However, “weed” was ultimately appropriated by smokers and eventually lost its negative connotations. The word’s origin can also be attributed to Mexican slang, as their word for marijuana translates to the “weed that intoxicates.”
This has nothing to do with the vessel plants grow in; it’s a contraction of the Mexican Spanish drink, potación de guaya, a mixture of marijuana buds and wine or brandy. The name gained popularity during prohibition in the 1930s and ’40s, and has gone on to become one of the most used colloquialisms for marijuana ever since.
The origins of “420” are a little hazy. Some say it’s from an old police code used to indicate smoking in progress, while others say it came from The Grateful Dead’s room number of preference when they were on tour. The reality is much more mundane than that. Most likely, 4:20 was the time high school students in 1970s San Rafael, California would meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur to smoke weed. For them, the term came to acknowledge more than just the time, but also the act. Since then, “420” has pervaded the smoker’s lexicon and pop culture in general.
As marijuana legalization takes hold, these terms are quickly being supplanted by the less colloquial and more medical and scientific terms: “cannabis”, “cannabinoids”, “marijuana”, etc. Strain names have also become more popular in usage than more general terms. Patients and practiced smokers aren’t just looking for a high anymore; they want to know exactly what to expect from their smoke.
These words, born through mistranslations, misquotations, colonial intervention and clandestine high school activities, still remain an important part of the history of marijuana. They are gateways into a subculture that has persisted through much of the 20th century and beyond. As much as legal cannabis has begun to change the lexicon, these slang terms will likely stick around for many generations.
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