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Cannabis Slang Deep Dive: Marijuana

By Brittiany Ralls February 27, 2023

Words are powerful tools that can be used to build up and break down our perception of the world around us. The words we choose and how we use them often reflect our values and beliefs. For example, words associated with the cannabis plant have been viewed negatively for decades, though it is known to bring healing, harmony, and joy to many people around the world. Because of this, we wanted to explore the etymology of cannabis terms starting first with marijuana.

Have you ever wondered where the word marijuana came from? Cannabis sativa is the scientific name, so how did this term become the most well-known word for describing the plant? 

Wade through the weeds with us as we explore the origin and history of the word marijuana, its slang and synonymous terms, and its use in other languages.

A Brief History of Marijuana Use

The history of marijuana use can be traced back thousands of years.  

The plant was used by ancient societies and cultures around the world, though many speculate that its use started in Asia around 500 BC. While its roots may have started in ancient Asia, where it was used for medicinal and spiritual purposes, cannabis eventually spread to other parts of the world, including Africa and Europe in the centuries that followed: 

  • 1500s: Spanish explorers introduced cannabis to the New World, leading to the plant taking root in North and South America.  
  • 1600s: farmers in colonies Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and more were required by the  government to grow hemp to meet the demand for military supplies for items such as sails and ropes.  
  • 1800s: immigration from Mexico to America was on the rise and this fueled attention to the plant and its association with the Mexican community.   
  • 1900s: the Mexican Revolution helped spread the recreational use of cannabis to American culture in a much larger way.  
  • 1937: the United States passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which imposed restrictions on the production and sale of cannabis. Through this act, the government was also able to use propaganda that was racially discriminate against people of color in America, including the Mexican community.   
  • 1970: the Marihuana Tax Act was repealed, and the Controlled Substances Act was put into law – scheduling marijuana as a Schedule I drug. This ensured that even hemp was not allowed to be produced, sold, or purchased.   
  • 1996: California legalizes medical marijuana statewide, paving the way for more states to do the same in coming years. Oh, happy days!   

So, What is the Definition of Marijuana? 

If you're an avid believer of the plant, you probably know that the "j" reads as a "w" in marijuana (mer-ə-ˈwä-nə), but did you know that according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, marijuana is a noun? The best-known dictionary defines marijuana in quite simple terms:

cannabis, especially as smoked or consumed as a psychoactive (mind-altering) drug

Interestingly, marijuana has a second, more robust definition under the term "medical marijuana":

the psychoactive dried resinous flower buds and leaves of the female hemp or cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa or C. indica) that contain high levels of THC and are smoked, vaped, or ingested (as in baked goods), especially for their intoxicating effect

When was the Word Marijuana First Recorded?

While the true origins of the word marijuana are clouded in smoke, we will try our best to give you a puff-by-puff history lesson on what we do know about this word and where it came from. 

For centuries, the plant has been used for various medicinal and spiritual practices across societies, but it wasn't known by the word "marijuana" until the mid-1800s when the Mexican Pharmaceutical Academy mentioned "mariguana" in a medical publication. 

The next official recording of the term occurred in a different medical publication authored by Leonardo Oliva in Guadalajara, Mexico during the same period. In it, he noted the consumption of marijuana leads to intoxication without gastric irritation (stomach pain due to acidity levels rising), unlike alcohol consumption. 

In the United States print news, though, the plant was gaining a different reputation.

Marijuana and the War on Drugs

Marijuana and the War on Drugs

Although cannabis has been used for centuries, the term "marijuana" became widely used in the 20th century. This coincided with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, which was championed by Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an agency responsible for enforcing drug laws. Anslinger was a vocal advocate of marijuana prohibition and used inflammatory language to demonize the drug and its users. He claimed that marijuana caused madness, violence, and immoral behavior, and he often associated it with black and Mexican communities.

One notable example of the propaganda used to demonize marijuana is the film "Reefer Madness," which depicted the drug as causing young people to spiral into depravity and insanity. The film is now considered a cult classic and is recognized for its fear-mongering and melodrama.

The racialization of marijuana was a deliberate strategy used by Anslinger and other prohibitionists to create a moral panic around the drug and justify its prohibition. By linking marijuana to racial and ethnic minorities, they were able to tap into existing prejudices and fears about these groups and use them to push for harsher drug laws. This tactic continues to have a lasting impact on drug policy and the criminal justice system today.

How is the Word "Marijuana" Used Today?

As of February 2023, the cannabis plant is legal in 37 states medically and 21 states recreationally, in addition to Washington D.C. While definitions, rules, and regulations vary state by state, many still rely on the term marijuana for their programs. For example, in the northeast area of the United States, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut favor marijuana, while neighbors Maryland and New Jersey opted for cannabis.

So, what does this mean when searching the internet for answers about this amazing plant? What term is best to use - marijuana or cannabis, when seeking answers to your cannabis-related questions? The most searched term for cannabis is marijuana, not its medical term - cannabis sativa, and certainly not weed or pot. While we don't have a definitive answer as to why marijuana is used more, we can assess that it's probably due to the war on drugs and the association with the term marijuana that has bolstered its present-day use.

Should We Still Use the Word Marijuana Today?

This question is hard to answer, and it’s important to consider why it's being debated in the first place.  

This thought stems from the propaganda associated with the word marijuana, which we mentioned earlier. When speaking to policy changes and what word should be used legally, some want the word "marijuana" to be removed and have "cannabis" replace it, but some argue that removing marijuana is removing the Mexican culture's influence on America's use of the plant.

Because of the many facets that surround this word and the fact that language evolves, using the word marijuana today depends on context and understanding. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to using marijuana. When chatting with friends or family about this plant, using marijuana might be better, it's the term they are probably most familiar with. However, in terms of medicine, science, and law, it may be more appropriate to use cannabis as it is a more formal structure. It also allows cohesion across all fields when discussing the plant, which can be an important aspect to consider. 

Ultimately, the words we choose are a reflection of our own personal values and beliefs.  By recognizing this, we can lean into conversations about cannabis – marijuana – to allow for a deeper understanding of the plant.

Marijuana in Other Languages

Cannabis is an ancient word that has been adopted and adapted into many languages around the world. For example, with the spread of the plant across the globe in ancient times, came the use of different names for the plant in different areas. If you were in ancient India the plant was called bhang, and in ancient Greece, it was called kannabis.

In more modern times, Spanish speakers might use the word marihuana more. Each of these words has variations depending on region, with local variations such as mariguano being used in some areas of Mexico to refer to marijuana specifically or mota being used for the slang term. Here are some examples of translations of marijuana from China, Japan, and Russia, plus more.    

In more modern times, Spanish speakers might use the word marihuana more. Each of these words has variations depending on region, with local variations such as mariguano being used in some areas of Mexico to refer to marijuana specifically or mota being used for the slang term. Here are some examples of translations of marijuana from China, Japan, and Russia, plus more.  

As we've seen with language evolving, the use of marijuana and all its various forms has been on quite a journey in the US. So as expected it's also been on a journey in other nations across the world, here are the most commonly used versions of the word marijuana in other languages, as well as a few slang terms:

  • Mandarin: ma ren hua or dàmá
  • German: marihuana
  • Hawaiian: pakalolo or mariuana
  • Indonesian: ganja
  • Ancient India: bhang
  • Japanese: marifana or potta (pot) or Zassō (weed)
  • Korean: sam
  • Portuguese: maconha
  • Russian: marikhuana
  • Ancient Greece: kannabis

Slang Terms and Synonyms for Marijuana

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of slang terms and synonyms for this incredible plant. From the scientific name to code names, here are some other common ways to reference marijuana:

  • bud
  • cannabis
  • ganja
  • pot
  • weed
  • grass
  • broccoli
  • herb
  • Mary Jane
  • reefer

And believe it or not, that’s just the start. Want to explore more slang words or brush up on your cannabis lingo before the next MÜV Word of the Month? Broaden your understanding of cannabis knowledge with our handy glossary

Learn Cannabis Slang with MÜV Word of the Month 

Cannabis Words and Terminology 101

Expand your cannabis vocabulary with us! We'll help you uncover the fascinating linguistic and etymological origins behind this enigmatic plant. Join us on a journey as we explore the origin, slang, historical context, and all of the other mysteries related to marijuana as we explore cannabis terminology in depth. In the meantime, if there is a tickle in your brain to learn more now, head to The Evolution Of Cannabis Terminology!


References:

  1. Coughlin-Bogue, Tobias. "Weed Slang: How to Talk Cannabis in Seven Different Countries | Herb" Herb, 3 Sep. 2018, https://herb.co/news/travel/weed-slang-around-the-world/. Accessed 1 Jan. 1970.
  2. Editors, History.com "Marijuana - HISTORY." 19 Jan. 2023 https://www.history.com/topics/crime/history-of-marijuana, Accessed 1 Jan. 1970.
  3. “Marijuana.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/marijuana. Accessed 25 Jan. 2023.
  4. Thompson, M. (2013, July 22). The Mysterious History Of 'Marijuana'. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/07/14/201981025/the-mysterious-history-of-marijuana

*This post was updated on April 26, 2023 to correct the title.

Content Writer for MÜV and Zen Leaf. Britt began exploring cannabis as a recreational user attempting to treat her migraines and depression. Finding success, she began to realize the many benefits of cannabis for a multitude of ailments. Her new-found knowledge prompted a move to Colorado, where she was able to medically treat her son with ADHD and aid her family in becoming healthier and happier. Realizing her passion for cannabis, she turned it into a career. Joining the industry as Medtender and moving into management gave Britt the knowledge needed to become a writer for a local cannabis culture magazine in Oklahoma and a leading voice in cannabis compliance.

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