Cannabis. Bud. Herb. Ganja, pot, hooch – weed, dank, green. Et cetera, et cetera. There are a diverse range of labels and names often used interchangeably to classify this peculiarly potent plant. Many of us have come to know it as ‘marijuana’. But, where did that term in particular come from? What does ‘marijuana’ really mean; that is to say, what is the history of the word’s use? In this article, we will explore the roots of this term, and the case for dropping its use for one of its many alternatives.
It’s common knowledge that the term originated in Mexican Spanish during the 18th Century as marihuana. Some suggest it may come from the Nahuatl word mallihuan, meaning “prisoner” – however, linguists say this may simply be a case of incidental homophony. Cannabis is not known to have been present in the Americas prior to Spanish contact; thus, it’s unlikely that it originated from an indigenous word in this fashion. Others trace the possible origins of the word to Chinese ma ren hua, meaning ‘hemp seed flower’. This root was then likely adopted into the Semitic, and eventually Spanish languages.
The word entered English usage in the late 19th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known appearance of a form of the word in English is in Hubert Howe Bancroft’s 1873 The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America. The use of “marihuana” in American English rose dramatically in the 1930s. At this time, it was preferred in the press as an exotic-sounding name for the controversial drug.
Is ‘Marijuana’ Problematic?
Indeed, this is where the critics chime in.  It’s suggested that the word was promoted by opponents of the drug, who were out to stigmatise its use.  The word, having gained prominence in Mexican Spanish, was emphasised in public discourse. Certain publications with clear financial interests in opposition to hemp explicitly tied the drug to the active fear-mongering of Mexican foreigners occurring at the time in the United States (which continues on in one form or another to this day).
In the 1930’s, Mexicans were generally unpopular with white Americans. Beyond the fact that the countries fought a bloody war in living memory, they were perceived as deviant and often (incorrectly) blamed for the poor condition of the white toiling classes. Harry Anslinger, one of the leaders of the prohibition effort, once said:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
Essentially, the word in its modern permutation has clearly racist and prohibitionist origins. Yet, with the ratification of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, it was solidified into law, as well as common American English.
There is something to be said about refining the use of our vocabulary to define who we are and what we stand for. In this case, it’s key to acknowledge that the initial development of the Spanish word was distorted by structures of domination and control. Still, erasing ‘marijuana’ as a name for our beloved plant could potentially lead to an obscuring of its human history, particularly when it comes to prohibition.  There is a need for us to acknowledge that our present has its roots in our past. In this case, it wasn’t even that long ago.
Our official stance at Friendly Aussie Buds is that we only use it very occasionally (the word, that is – the drug itself, a little more often), and in contexts where it makes most sense. Otherwise, we try to apply other words to re(e)fer to the same thing. We are sensitive to the history of prohibition and white supremacy, along with how they are interwoven.  Still, we see ‘marijuana’ as an integrated part of our common English vernacular; a word likely originating from China, adopted by Mexicans and distorted by the white American bourgeoisie, has now developed new meanings since its use in fear-mongering campaigns. As advocates of cannabis legalisation and normalisation, perhaps it’s better to embrace our past, so we can redefine our future.
How do you feel about the common use of the word ‘marijuana’? As far as we’ve gathered from our circles, most stoners don’t seem to mind that much…