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)

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Last week, well over 700 people tragically died in a stampede in Mina, a neighborhood outside Mecca where Muslims carry out a symbolic stoning as part of the Hajj. This stampede occurred in the deserts of Western Asia, but the word stampede originates near the deserts of the American West.

Mortar and Pestle_Ink on Paper_doodle
“Mortar and pestle.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English took to stampede in 1823. It is first cited as a verb describing a herd of cattle becoming panic-stricken and taking flight. The earliest record the OED finds is in The Austin Papers, firsthand documents left behind by Moses and Stephen F. Austins’ efforts to settle Texas. The capital of the Lone Start State still remembers their name.

English took stampede from the Mexican Spanish estampida, a special usage of estampido, a “crash,” “bang,” “boom,” or “uproar.” With the initial e dropped by a process called aphesis, early forms of stampede show its Spanish origins still settling in: stampado, stampedostampido, and stompado. The latter, stompado, also appears in an early passage illustrating the sonic intensity that inspired the Spanish word. In his 1826 novel, Francis BerrianOr the Mexican PatriotTimothy Flint writes of wild horses:

Instantly, this prodigious multitude, and there were thousands of them, took what the Spanish call “stompado.” With a trampling like the noise of thunder, or still more like that of an earthquake, a noise that was absolutely appalling, they took to their heels, and were all in a few moments in the verdant depths of the plains, and we saw them no more.

As we so sadly saw in Mina, human stampedes don’t have “verdant depths of the plains” to flee to.

The connection of stampedes to humans occurred quickly, evidenced in the OED very soon after its original usage appears. Stampedes have also referred to gold rushes, rodeos, and, at US political conventions, rushes to nominate “the candidate who seems likely to win,” (OED) which clearly remains to be seen in the current race for the White House.


Many scholars place the Spanish estampido in the Provençal estampar, “to stamp,” as in “to press” or “pound.” The word is common across the Romance languages, believed to have been borrowed from a Germanic root, *stamp-. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots sees this ultimately as a nasalized form of a Proto-Indo-European root, *stebh-, a “post” or “stem” in noun form, “to place firmly on” or “to fasten” in verb form. Staff, staplestepstoop, and stump are also considered derivatives – as is stamp, as you probably originally guessed.

Like its Romance cognates, stamp has taken on a variety of meanings over the centuries. Today, stamp likely evokes postage or foot-pounding for English speakers. But the earliest record we have for stamp in the language actually refers to mortar and pestles. The OED has evidence for a form of stamp as early as 1000, a verb meaning “to bray in a mortar.” As the OED helps us out,  the sense is “to pound” or “beat to a pulp.”

Let’s look not to the process but the product of a mortar and pestle, which has, for so long along our greater human pilgrimage, helped create medicine and nourishment – something that the many wounded in the stampede, or the many who have lost a loved one in it, well deserve.

Mortar and Pestle_Ink on Paper_Scribblem ∫ r ∫