Pot. Reefer. Ganja. Dank. The Sticky-Icky. There must be thousands of different slang terms that have been used over the years to refer to the cannabis plant, and some of them are downright confusing. Have you ever wondered where all these names came from in the first place? If so, you are not alone.
These colloquialisms get used so often for such a long period of time; it’s easy to forget how they were conceived. Why do we call cannabis names such as dope or grass? Let’s take a look at the etymological roots and origins of some of the most well-known slang terms for cannabis. What you learn might surprise you!
Marijuana is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all the modern cannabis slang. The term is so well-known and accepted that it even winds up used in hyper-formal settings such as legislation. You may be surprised to learn that despite being so widely used and accepted, the word marijuana actually has a racist past.
During the ‘30s, the architects of American cannabis prohibition like Harry Anslinger led a concerted effort to associate cannabis with Mexican immigrants and African-American jazz musicians. Before this era, nobody used marijuana as a way to refer to cannabis, which at the time was a prominent active ingredient used in medicinal tinctures and championed by the American Medical Association. As more and more Americans formed racial connections to the term Marijuana, it became easier to pass unpopular prohibition legislation like the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
Here we have another extremely common term used to describe cannabis—pot. Some slick-talking stoner might have tried to convince you the word comes from the pots that cannabis plants grow in, but in actuality, it has nothing to do with gardening.
Pot actually comes from the Spanish phrase potación de guaya, which describes a wine or brandy that has been infused with cannabis. The process of making potación de guaya involves simply steeping cannabis buds directly in your alcoholic beverage, and the practice has been around since the 1930s. Eventually, potación de guaya was shortened to potiguaya, which was further shortened to pot.
This common slang term seems to make sense on the surface. The term originally started showing up in the ‘30s but didn’t catch on in popularity until the ‘90s and 2000s. The exact origins remain unknown, though it’s likely it comes from the fact that wild cannabis can appear weed-like when growing. Alternatively, perhaps the name is in reference to the plant’s illicit status since weeds are typically intentionally removed from a garden.
Reefer, a term favored by prohibition-era jazz musicians, is another slang phrase with somewhat mysterious origins. According to one theory, the word reefer actually comes from sailing. While out on a boat, reefing is a common word used to describe rolling up the sails—an act visually similar to rolling up a joint.
Another theory suggests that reefer comes from the Spanish word “grifa,” which translates to cannabis. Whatever the case may be, you can't have many people using reefer unironically in 2021 as the slang term has gone the way of the dinosaurs.
The word Ganja has close ties to the island of Jamaica, though it doesn’t come from the Caribbean originally. Believe it or not, Ganja is actually the hindi word for cannabis.
From the 18th to 20th century, Jamaica was controlled by the British Empire who exploited the island country for its natural resources (primarily sugar cane). Harvesting sugar is backbreaking labor that was conducted primarily by West African slaves until 1838, when the empire officially ended the practice of chattel slavery.
After being freed, a large majority of slaves in Jamaica understandably had no interest in continuing to work on these sugar plantations, so additional labor was required. The labor shortage caused plantation owners to import droves of Indian indentured servants to Jamaica, who brought with them Ganja and the techniques to prepare it. This class of cultures created the Jamaica we know today, as well as the religion of Rastafari.
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