Taking a hit of etymology for 4/20

It’s April 20, or as many marijuana enthusiasts know it well, 4/20. Today, especially when the clocks strike 4:20pm, many people will light a joint or smoke a bowl in celebration of the herb. Contrary to all the myths about police codes, the number 420 is variously used to refer to marijuana thanks to a group of Bay Area high-schoolers who would meet at a campus statue after school at 4:20pm to get high and hunt for a secret patch where marijuana plants were growing. The time later went on to become a codeword for marijuana or getting high itself.

That’s the origin of 420. But what about the origins of the day’s honoree, marijuana, and some of its many related terms? I think this calls for a hit of etymology.

In the etymological weeds? (Pixabay)


Attested by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1874, marijuana is borrowed from the Mexican Spanish mariguana or marihuana, whose deeper roots are unknown. Some have connected marihuana to an indigenous Nahuatl word, malihuan, “prisoner,” apparently on account of its intoxicating effects. Others—arguing there’s no evidence for cannabis in the Americas before the Spanish and citing various pathways of historical trade—have offered the Chinese ma ren hua, “hemp seed flowers” or the Semitic root mrr, “bitter,” said to make its way into Spanish via mejorana, “marjoram.” (The root mrr does show up in myrrh and myrtle.)

The English spelling, marijuana, was likely influenced by the Spanish name, María Juana, “Mary Jane,” which has become its own slang term for the substance and source of many folk etymologies, frequently centering on Christianity’s Virgin Mary.


Scientifically speaking, marijuana is a member of the Cannabis genus of plants (hence  the general term cannabis). Cannabis has long been used to make hemp fiber as much as it was any recreational drug. The OED finds cannabis as a foreign term as early as 1548.

The word cannabis derives from the Greek kannabis, meaning “hemp” and possibly of Scythian origin. Some etymologists think early Germanic peoples borrowed kannabis, where it ultimately became the word hemp, a word itself recorded in Old English. Latin borrowed kannabis as cannabis, and an adjective form of the loanword eventually yielded canvas, etymologically “made of hemp.”


The OED dates pot, a slang term for marijuana, to 1938. Its origin, like marijuana, is uncertain. One common explanation roots it in the Mexican Spanish potiguaya, “marijuana leaves,” especially as the journal American Speech records this term slightly earlier, in 1936. The OED has a few other suggestions: 1) potación de guaya, “drink of grief,” purportedly a wine- or brandy-based drink steeped with marijuana; 2) some connection to the more familiar word pot, “vessel,” perhaps via how marijuana can be smoked; or 3) some relationship to pod, a slang term for marijuana attested in the 1950s.


Long before weed referred to marijuana, it referred to “tobacco” in the early 1600s. Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds it as slang for “marijuana” in the 1910s. Weed itself comes from the Old English weod, regarded as a rank plant even back then, with cognates in other West Germanic languages.


Before it was slang for “marijuana,” dope meant “sauce” or “gravy.” The term dates back to American English in the early 1800s and comes from the Dutch doop or doup, a kind of “dipping sauce.” Dope went on to name other thick, syrupy substances, including mind- and performance-altering drugs. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer finds dope for a smoked preparation of opium in 1883, soon after extended to marijuana.

As for sports doping? Zimmer finds horses getting doped to improve—or hinder—their performance in the 1870s. (The idea is of illicitly injecting horses with a medicinal substance, then commonly dubbed dope.) So common was racehorse doping in the late 19th century, Zimmer says, that dope became a slang term for tips on or expectations of a racehorse, hence getting “the inside dope” or “the straight dope.”


Hash, short for hashish, names a psychotropic substance derived from the cannabis plant. While Jonathon Green finds the abbreviated hash in the 1940s, hashish itself goes all the way back to the 1590s. Hashish is borrowed from the Arabic hashish, “dry herb, hay,” from a verb form meaning “dried up.” But the Arabic hashish also shows up in an older word: assassin. In the early 1300s, assassin (then, hassasis) was an offensive name for members of the Nizari sect of Islam known for murdering their adversaries, hence the modern assassin, a term generalized by the early 1500s.

But why the connection to cannabis? Folk tales reaching back to the 12th century claim Nazari members would consume hashish, obtained from their leader, the “Old Man on the Mountain,” to get a sublime high (and glimpse of promised paradise) before killing their foes, often storied to be Christians. But as the OED explains: “The Arabic name was probably originally a derogatory nickname, with reference to the supposedly erratic behaviour of the members of the sect, as if intoxicated by hashish.”

m ∫ r ∫

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