Language is an ever-evolving construct where both spelling and meaning are largely dictated by common usage. Both spellings, “marijuana” and “marihuana,” describe the intoxicating strains of the cannabis plant, and each has been used for the last century in various regions and official capacities. You may be wondering: “Why is marijuana sometimes spelled marihuana? Where did these words come from?” To really understand how we use these terms in contemporary language, we must first explore their dubious origins and the influence of public perception throughout history.
Origins of the Word “Marihuana”
Mexicans called cannabis marihuana or mariguana, and popularized this nickname in America during a wave of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century. The more-common contemporary American spelling, “marijuana” is an Anglicized version of the Mexican-Spanish name “marihuana,” and the two have been used interchangeably. Either way you spell it, it’s still not entirely clear where this term originated. John G. Bourke is credited with the first published English use of a form of this word in his article “The American Congo” for Scribner’s Magazine in 1894. In this feature, he describes some of the native plants found on the banks of the Rio Grande River, which separates Mexico from the state of Texas, mentioning: “The "toloachi ," the "mariguan," and the "drago,' the first two used by discarded women for the purpose of wreaking terrible revenge upon recreant lovers, and the last one much employed by the "medicine men" of the Indian tribes as a narcotic to induce prophetic dreaming.” (Alan Piper, author of The Mysterious Origins of the Word ‘Marihuana’ believes that this “revenge” came in the form of secretly administering these herbs as a poison to bring about violent intoxication.) The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the term “marijuana” is a Mexican-Spanish word that may originate from the Nahuatl word mallihuan which means “prisoner.” A notable linguist, Jason D. Haugen, has stated that there is no semantic basis for this suggestion, and that mallihuan is simply a false cognate. It is generally agreed that cannabis was not known to the people of the Americas before Spanish contact, so an indigenous origin is unlikely. Here are a few more-plausible theories:
In his "History and Ethnography of Cannabis," famous anthropologist Weston T. La Barre theorized that “marihuana” was adapted from the Chinese words for hemp and “brought by Chinese coolie labourers to Western Mexico.” In Chinese, ma ren was the standard term meaning “cannabis seed” while ma hua referred to the psychoactive preparation of cannabis, as reported by Joseph Needham in Science & Civilisation in China, 1974. Ma ren hua, which looks and sounds quite a bit like marihuana, could therefore loosely translate to “hemp seed flower” in Chinese. Another Mexican slang term for cannabis is orégano chino, meaning “Chinese oregano” or, more colloquially, “Chinese herb.” This suggests a strong association of cannabis with Chinese influence in Mexico, but ma ren hua has not been conclusively proven as the origin of marihuana.
This term may stem from the Spanish word mejorana, which is known as marjoram in English. This herb belongs to the genus Origanum and is a specific type of oregano. It’s easy to see that the Mexican-Spanish terms orégano chino and marihuana may have evolved in relation to the Spanish name for this culinary herb. Metathesis is a phenomenon where re-ordering the syllables in a word results in a dialectical pronunciation or slang term, such as “purdy” in place of “pretty,” or pronouncing “nuclear” as noo-kyew-lur. Some linguists theorize that metathesis was responsible for transforming mejorana to marihuana. It is quite possible that marihuana could more simply be a name of folk origin, a hybrid of the common Spanish names Maria and Juana—thus the American nickname, Mary Jane.
Early Use of “Marihuana” in English language
According to data collected by the Washington Post, “cannabis” was the most commonly used word to describe this medicinal plant in English language books from the late 1800s until the 1930s. During this period, cannabis was used legally as an over-the-counter remedy and was even listed in the United States Pharmacopeia as a treatment for a variety of ailments. Instances of both “marihuana” and “marijuana” began to appear more frequently during the early twentieth century. At this time, Mexican immigrants began to move in large numbers to the American Southwest as a result of the political unrest surrounding the Revolution of 1910. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led by Harry Anslinger, preferred to use the Mexican name over the Latin scientific term, cannabis. Marihuana sounded more foreign and mysterious, which helped to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiment in the Bureau’s campaign to federally ban cannabis. Anslinger associated marijuana with immigrants, jazz, and taboo behavior. In 1937, Anslinger’s efforts to demonize this “evil weed” were rewarded with the Marihuana Tax Act which federally banned the cultivation and use of cannabis. The same spelling was used again in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Why do we use “Marijuana” instead of “Marihuana” more often?
The various spellings of this term are largely due to preference and precedent. The popularity of spelling marijuana with a ‘j’ instead of an ‘h’ began to sharply increase in the 1960s and 1970s, but the reasons remain unclear. Some believe that this shift occurred because more Americans became familiar with the Spanish pronunciation of the letter J. While “marihuana” has been mostly phased out of common English usage, some governments and official organizations continue to spell the term this way. At the Drug Enforcement Agency, marihuana and marijuana are used interchangeably and determined by the person creating the official document, according to Russel Baer, a spokesperson for the DEA. The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act and all corresponding administrative rules also use the less common spelling. Lawmakers used the then-current federal spelling when they originally adopted their statutory definition of marijuana. It would require an act of the Michigan Legislature to change the spelling of marijuana in any Michigan statutes. Some organizations have begun eliminating both marijuana and marihuana entirely. This is due largely to the use of this Mexican-Spanish term by anti-cannabis figures in the early twentieth century to play up xenophobic sentiment. Most notably, Health Canada removed “marijuana” from its official regulations in 2016, preferring the scientific term cannabis instead.