Human beings love a good weed nickname (weed is one of them, in fact). Cannabis slang is often colourful, sometimes hilarious, and a great reflection of the time and the culture of the people that invent it. In this first instalment, here’s a list of some favourite names and terms for our favourite plant.
“Ganja” is a word with history. It didn’t begin as a slang term—it’s the original Sanskrit word for cannabis. When people from India were brought to work in the Caribbean by their British rulers, they brought cannabis, and their word for it, with them. The word took root in the islands, just like the plant. When Rastifarians eventually adopted it as their term of choice, the lasting success of the word Ganja was guaranteed.
Few people know that the word ‘marijuana’ is actually considered a slang word in Spanish. Its origins are disputed, but some linguists believe it descends from a Chinese term for cannabis. One thing we know for certain—the word marijuana entered the mainstream in English when governments and the press in the USA and England began to use it in the early 20th century. Once it was decided that cannabis was unwelcome and dangerous to society, the word was used specifically because it sounded foreign, and therefore frightening, to members of the public who were just learning about it. In 1928 The British Daily Examiner referred to it as “The Deadly Mexican Drug—also known as Marihuana”. This word also gave us the more cheerful sounding English nickname “Mary Jane”.
One of the most common slang terms for cannabis, “pot” is a nickname for which we have a clear history.
A Spanish drink called Potacion de Guaya was made from wine steeped in cannabis leaves. Its name means “The Drink of Grieving”. It was shortened to Potiguaya by native speakers who drank the beverage, and eventually dwindled to the simple, single syllable “pot”, thus the name pot store.
The history of the word “reefer” is less clear. There are two main theories for its origin. It may come from a Spanish word meaning curly or frizzy hair, perhaps referring to the look of the dried marijuana flower. Another theory has a nautical theme. Aboard a ship, the “reefer” was the sailor responsible for properly rolling sails. Once rolled, these sails perfectly resemble a rolled joint. It’s not clear which of these colourful stories gave us the word.
To “bogart” a cannabis joint is to keep it too long and smoke too much of it before passing it on. The word comes from Humphrey Bogart, who was famous for dangling a cigarette from his lips for an interminably long time. History doesn’t tell us if Humphrey Bogart ever bogarted a joint.
Slang from the jazz age
In the early 20th century, when the jazz age began in Harlem, cannabis played an important role in the culture. We have inherited a wealth of slang terms about cannabis from this time in history. Here are a few of our favourites you might have heard from the mouth of a jive talker in the 1930s:
Muggles: Now principally referring to those of us cursed with no magical ability, “muggles” used to simply mean marijuana. Louis Armstrong loved the term (and the plant), and even wrote a song for trumpet named after it.
Jazz Cabbage, Jazz Cigarettes: These self-explanatory terms for cannabis and rolled joints celebrated the crucial role that cannabis played in the early jazz scene.
Left-Handed Cigarette: This lovely term is a little less obvious. It refers to the association of the left hand with the sinister and the improper. So, a right-handed cigarette was a regular, respectable tobacco cigarette, while the left-handed version was filled with the more suspicious, less-respectable dried cannabis.
Balloon Room: A “balloon room” was a cannabis-friendly room or establishment where it was safe to get “high”… like a balloon.
In our next post on this topic, we’ll cover more of these delightful slang terms for cannabis. We’ll take a deeper dive into some more exotic nicknames, revisit the jive-talking jazz age, and try to get to the truth about where the term “420” comes from.