Cannabis may be the most complicated flower in horticultural history. In addition to having a legacy fraught with legal controversy, avarice, and taboo, the very names by which it is identified are numerous, and in some instances, loaded with their own baggage.
Ten Common Names for Cannabis
Here are ten common names for our favorite plant and the lore behind them.
Probably the least dramatic name on the list, bud is a reference to the plant’s anatomy. According to Merriam-Webster, a bud is
“a small lateral or terminal protuberance on the stem of a plant that may develop into a flower, leaf, or shoot.”
This part of the cannabis plant is comprised of the calyx (the small sugar leaves) and pistils (the orange, brown hairs that protrude from the calyx), and it is what consumers smoke. On top of being an easy and unthreatening word, this name for cannabis is a reminder that the polemical plant is just a flower.
This is the scientific name for the plant belonging to the flowering plant family, Cannabaceae. Merriam Webster’s dictionary states that the first recorded use of the word was in 1783. It is a Latin word meaning “hemp,” from the Greek word “Kannabis.” Jean-Baptise Lamarck, the French nationalist, is credited with identifying the plant by two names: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The former is the species grown in the west while the latter species is native to India. Cannabis ruderalis, a third species, was discovered by D.E. Janischewsky, a Russian botanist, in 1924. As cannabis becomes more mainstream and the racist history behind its prohibition is told more often, and more importantly, more often believed, its advocates are returning to the use of this word over its other more… culturally controversial names.
Although this word is most associated with the Jamaican born religion, Rastafarianism, it’s origins are Sanskrit and hail from India. The name found its way to Jamaica through human trafficking. When Britain outlawed slavery in Jamaica, rich land-owners bypassed this change by importing Indians as indentured servants. Cannabis had a centuries-long history in India and is regarded as sacred in Hinduism. For example, Bhang, a drink concoction made with cannabis, is thought to be the Hindu god, Shiva’s, favorite refreshment.
As Indian and Jamaican culture melded, the use of “ganja” pervaded culture on the island, particularly among the marginalized
Because of the influence of the Hindu tradition, ganja was already regarded as a spiritual substance and was thus incorporated into Rastafarianism. Bob Marley, the beloved reggae singer and Rastafarian, is largely responsible for the publicity the religion—and it’s relationship with “ganja”—received in the United States.
Merriam Webster’s etymology of the word trace its origins to the Old English, hænep, and the Old High German, hanaf. Both words come from the Greek, kannabis. Hemp is cannabis. Except, it’s not cannabis the way most people mean cannabis when they say… cannabis. Confused? Here’s how that works: hemp is a variation of the Cannabis sativa plant that has a negligible amount of THC and is cultivated for its industrial uses rather than the recreational uses with which high THC cannabis is attributed. So when someone uses the word hemp interchangeably with cannabis, they’re right… unless they are talking about the kind of cannabis that can get you high. Hemp has such a small amount of THC, you could smoke a field of it and remain sober. Asthmatic, but sober.
This name comes from the landrace strain, Hindu Kush. Landrace strains are ancient—they are plants that survived through the millennia. This strain is named after the Hindu Kush mountain range stretching 500 miles between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The origins of the mountain range’s name vary. One possible origin is the Greek “Caucasus Indicas,” meaning “Caucasus of the Indus River.” Another possibility is the Sanskrit “Hindū Kūh,” meaning “mountains of India” and “sparkling snows of India.” A third possibility is the Persian “kills the Hindus,” a reference to the mountain range’s uninhabitable, dangerous weather. Regardless of the name’s origins, the word “Kush” has pervaded cannabis culture as a term used to describe good weed.
The most controversial of all cannabis names, this is also probably one of the most commonly used by cannabis oppositionists.
Before its prohibition, cannabis was cultivated in the United States for industrial uses
It was a cash crop with medicinal attributes. The narcotic use of the plant became prevalent in the early twentieth century, at the same time that a wave of legal Mexican immigrants fleeing the violent Mexican Revolution entered the United States. Recreational cannabis use was an entrenched part of Mexican culture, and the Mexican name for the plant, marijuana, was in its vernacular. Cannabis became the target of xenophobic paranoia, and in order to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment, prohibitionists began to refer to the plant as marijuana (or marihuana) in order to emphasize its relationship with the Mexicans who consumed it. In the United States, the name “marijuana” has its roots anchored in the ugly medium of racism, xenophobia, and ignorance.
As is the case with many words that comprise a subculture’s lexicon, the exact origins of the name “Mary Jane” aren’t known. However, it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. Marijuana is the Mexican name for cannabis, and it sounds a lot like the name Maria Juana. That Spanish name translates to the English Mary Jane. The initials for both Maria Juana and Mary Jane are MJ, another name for the plant. Other puns for cannabis include Mary Warner, Mary Weaver, and Mary and Johnny.
According to Merriam Webster, this word may be a derivative of the Mexican-Spanish word, potiguaya. It notes that this version of the word was first used in 1938, the height of the anti-cannabis—and anti-Mexican—movement in the United States. A contraction of “potación de guaya,” potiguaya is the name of an alcoholic drink mixed with cannabis.
Another word with an unclear origin, this one could either be a reference to sailing or a bad hair day. The act of rolling the edge of a sail is known as “reefing,” and the one who performs that act is a “reefer.” The rolled sailed looks like a joint, thus the slang term for the cannabis plant. Another possible origin comes from the Spanish slang word, “grifo,” meaning “curly haired” or “tap.” The theory here is that someone who becomes inebriated will wake up with some crazy looking curly hair. In the 1920’s, the word grifo was used to insult cannabis consumers.
This one is obvious. A weed is a resilient yet despised plant that grows where it isn’t wanted. While cannabis isn’t technically a weed, it is certainly treated like one by the law. A contemporary term coined in the 80’s or 90’s, this name for cannabis is a comical reference to the plant’s cultural status as an invasive force you might not like but just can’t stop.