Because of its illegal status over the past 80 years, the controversial cannabis plant has taken on a number of names. But where did these marijuana slang terms come from?
As many will attest, cannabis stokes the imagination. It generates revelations and epiphanies. We see things differently. On sailing ships, the act of reefing a sail reduces the sail’s area by folding or rolling one edge of the canvas in on itself; a “reefer” is the sailor who rolls it. Apparently, a reefed sail resembles a joint. But there’s also evidence that the Spanish slang word grifo had some influence on the rise of the word “reefer.” Grifo has a few different meanings including “curly-haired,” “tap” and “spigot.” It’s unclear, but in the 1920s, somehow it gained popularity as a derogatory term for a cannabis user and became a common adjective to describe inebriation.
It’s the most common term for cannabis—and pretty much everyone believes it means “maryjane” in Spanish, with roots in Old Mexico. But not so fast. Certainly it was popular slang used by Mexican immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, but many etymologists believe the origins of “marijuana” spring from Chinses: ma ren hua means “hemp seed flower.” There’s also speculation that the word is derived from Hebrew and Arabic languages; marjoram, the aromatic spice, could be related to the word, as well as “mejorana,” a Spanish word for marjoram. History suggests that anti-cannabis politicians and bureaucrats latched on to “marijuana,” in order to demonize the plant with racial overtones, claiming that Mexicans and blacks would be preying upon white women in a marijuana-induced frenzy. To that end, cannabis was criminalized in 1937 via the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
Although it’s a widely used term for cannabis, many activists and advocates dislike the word “pot” because it connotes a stoner sensibility. To be sure, you’ll rarely hear Tommy Chong refer to cannabis as anything else! But how did pot come to be known as “pot?” Its etymological roots aren’t hard to trace. Potación de guaya, a Spanish term, is a wine or brandy in which cannabis leaves or buds have been steeped. Literally, it means “drink of grief.” The concoction predates cannabis prohibition, giving credence to the fact that the plant has been used traditionally as medicine for eons. Over the years, its name contracted to “potiguaya.” Then in the 1930s, it was shortened to “pot,” further fueling the racializing of cannabis use.
Not widely used any longer as a term for cannabis, primarily because it’s also a common term for heroin. “Dope,” in fact, has been commonly used to describe drugs en masse. Illegal drugs like meth, opium, cocaine, cannabis and heroin have all been placed under the “dope” umbrella. The word springs from the Dutch word doop, which means a thick sauce. It wasn’t too far a leap to call a thickheaded individual a doop. It gained popularity as a drug-oriented term in the late 1800s, a word to describe the act of smoking a semi-liquid opium preparation.
Ask most people and they’ll tell you “ganja” is the Jamaican word for cannabis. (Um, Jamaican isn’t a language.) Without a doubt, ganja is inextricably attached to Jamaica, but the word’s roots are from the Hindi term for cannabis—ganjha. But how did the term travel to Jamaica? In 1833, Britain outlawed slavery but it still needed laborers for its massive plantations in the Caribbean. The British Empire shipped 40,000 indentured laborers from India to Jamaica between 1845 and 1917. As Indian and Jamaican cultures merged, “ganja” became the common term for the cannabis that the field workers smoked. Today, smoking ganja is a central component of the Rastafarian religion.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the term “grass” was in vogue. It seems quaint now, a word that hearkens back to the days of hippies and flower power. Widespread use of the term was no doubt fueled by its appearance. Most of the cannabis available then was green and of lesser quality, often resembling lawn clippings. But it’s important to know that cannabis is mentioned in the Hindu sacred text Atharvaveda (Science of Charms) as “sacred grass,” one of the five sacred plants of India. Sacred grass is used both medicinally and ritually as an offering to Shiva.
Unfortunately, this innocent-sounding word carries some serious baggage. Chiva is Spanish slang for heroin. Literally it can mean “beard’ or a “young female goat.” But on the streets of the inner city, “cheeba” became the name for black tar heroin. Perhaps, “cheeba” gained popularity as cannabis slang as growers upped the quality of their product and buds became stick and gooier.
This one’s a puzzler, because mota in Spanish means a tiny bit or a speck of dust. Spaniards in the 18th century referred to the fuzz residue left behind from making linen as “mota.” How mota became a widely used term for cannabis by the late 1800s is a mystery. Regardless, a mota smoker can be called a “moto” or “motorolo.”
In the West Side Story song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Sharks, one of the rival street gangs, sing: “My daddy beats my mommy, my mommy clobbers me, my grandpa is a commie, my grandma pushes tea, my sister wears a mustache, my brother wears a dress… goodness gracious that’s why I’m a mess!” You probably understood everything in the lyrics but “my grandma pushes tea.” “Pushing tea” is slang for pot dealing. Tea, of course, is the pot itself. Why “tea?” Once again, cannabis has long used for poultices and medicinal beverages in folk medicine. The plant is steeped in hot water, just like tea—ergo this archaic term, which was coined in the 1930s.
Just one more inaccurate term for the cannabis plant spawned by generations who didn’t understand its benefits. “Weed” is defined as a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants. How could a term for cannabis be so off the mark? Cannabis is definitely “wanted” and if it’s “in competition with cultivated plants,” it’s winning hands down, now the most valuable cash crop in modern America.