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)

Continue reading “Taking a hit of etymology for 4/20”

Common word, uncommon power: behind “ban”

Donald Trump is once again making headlines – and turning heads. As his campaign issued in a news release this week:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

In their coverage of it, many in the press and on social media are referring to Trump’s provocative proclamation as a “ban” on Muslims.

This little word ban seems simple enough, but, like so much of language (and politics), the reality is, it’s much more complicated.


The word ban definitely had free entry into the English language, so to speak. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records ban in Old English, which had the verb bannan. This verb meant “to summon by proclamation,” especially “to arms,” as the OED explains. In the late 1200s, ban shifted to “curse,” conveying its modern and more general sense of “prohibit” by the 1800s. In the late 1950s and 1960s, nuclear disarmament campaigners were often called ban-the-bomb campaigners, which movement created the peace symbol, as I recently discussed.

English also has the noun ban. Evidenced by the late 1200s and traveling into English from the French, this ban originally named a “public proclamation,” also especially to arms. Among its many meanings, the French ban, from the late Latin bannum, signified a “banishment,” which is indeed an etymologically related word. Showing another form of the noun, a marriage banns preserves the word’s proclamatory origins.

Shaping each other over the course of their development, both ban’s were ultimately admitted into French,  Latin, and English from a Germanic source. Historical linguists reconstruct a Proto-Germanic *bannan, “to proclaim (under penalty or with a threat).” We can understand then, its early military senses; think proscription. At the core of this *bannan might be a more basic sense of “to announce publicly.”  

Now, Old Norse, a Germanic language, also presents a cognate: banna,  “to curse.” Probably borrowed in some early dialects thanks to the Viking conquests of England, etymologists suppose this banna pushed ban towards the sense of “prohibition” the word denotes today.

Indo-Europeanists hypothesize a deeper root in the Proto-Indo-European *bha-, “to speak,” source of a great many Latin and Greek derivatives, such as fame and phone, respectively.

Ban, with abandon

Banishment is not the only word related to ban. Abandon comes from a French expression,  à bandon, which means “under one’s control” or “willingly,” with bandon‘s “power” deriving from that earlier sense of “proclamation.” This explains reckless abandon, and we can understand the development of “to surrender” if we imagine another person in control.

Something contraband is literally “against the proclamation,” if we look to its Latin roots. It comes to English via the Italian for “unlawful dealing.” We can thank Italian, too, for bandit, from a word for “outlaw” (literally, someone “banished.”) 

Again, all of these words come from Latin forms, probably as loaned from some Germanic origin.

The banality of…communal kitchens 

During this presidential race, Trump’s incendiary language have now become, well, almost banal – another word related to ban.

As we saw, Old French had ban, which, among its other meanings, referred to a kind of militia, or “assemblage of military vassals,” as the OED glosses it. The men were commanded to serve by “proclamation,” or a ban. Again, think edict.

For its sense development in French, philologist Eric Partridge offers the French adjectival form banal, “of or for obligatory service,” hence “merely obligatory,” hence “commonplace.” It may have unfolded a bit differently, though. This banal also could convey “open to the whole community” (Barnhart), such as “things like ovens or mills that belonged to feudal serfs, or else compulsory military service,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary. Something “communal” can be viewed as “everyday,” and thus “common” or “trite.”

ban, as we’ve seen, is all about language: it originates as a public announcement. But these early proclamations, these early bans, had a lot of power and consequence, as they commanded men to fight. Whether we are sending out a tweet or running a campaign for the office of the presidency of the United States, we might heed the etymological lesson of ban with our many and instantaneous outlets for our pronouncements.  Words have a lot of power. Words have a lot of consequence.

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