There are hundreds, if not thousands of names for the much beloved plant that we have formally come to know as cannabis. But most of us didn’t know it by that name when we first met the plant; it was probably something more like weed or pot, or ganja – or herb or chronic as some Snoop Dogg lovers would call it.
It is somewhat of a mystery, why cannabis has so many names. There is virtually no other botanical – nor recreational drug – that has inspired as many slang names as marijuana itself. Perhaps it is a way of expressing affection for a plant that has played a pivotal role in the life of human beings for millennia. Then again, maybe it was necessitated by the legal controversy, the taboo and the propaganda that all marijuana lovers carried with them through the modern age.
Just about every term for cannabis as its own likely inspiration. Some have been inspired by science, others by what cannabis looks like, and other coinages inspired entirely by what it feels like to be high on cannabis. The point is: no matter what angle somebody comes at marijuana, whether it be academic, recreational or entrepreneurial, they have their own nickname for it. And that is something very, very unique to cannabis.
The scientific name: Cannabis
In just about all academic literature on the topic of this psychoactive plant, it is referred to as cannabis. The word originates from the Greek word, κάνναβις (kannabis), meaning hemp. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, the first time the word cannabis was used in literature was as early as 1783.
Cannabis became the scientific term for this plant thanks to French nationalist, Jean-Baptiste Lemarck, who identified two kinds of cannabis: cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. Without getting into the taxonomic differences between the two species of plant, the former referred to cannabis which grew wild in the Western part of the world. The latter referred to cannabis that grew wild in India.
The controversial name: Marijuana
Marijuana is not just the most controversial way to refer to the cannabis plant. It’s arguably one of the most controversial words in history. The term “marijuana” was popularized during the Mexican revolution, which interestingly (and contentiously) coincides with the demonization of the plant and its subsequent prohibition.
Before the Mexican Revolution, virtually every apothecary in the US was stocked with one or more different cannabis preparations. It was considered a valuable medicine and was freely distributed. However, when many Mexican immigrants began to cross the border, they brought with them a local mixture of herbs called “marihuana”, which at the time had nothing to do with the psychedelic plant we now call marijuana. The US government confused this term with the locoweed, and used it as a way to associate illegal and drug-fueled behavior with Mexican immigrants.
Naturally, the US government demonized the plant, and began the long journey of prohibition. Along with the demonization of marijuana came the demonization of those whose culture the word belonged to. It essentially became a tool for manipulating public opinion and education (using media and propaganda), to convince the American people that drug use, especially with respect to cannabis, was a quality of immigrants.
The Rasta name: Ganja
Ganja is a term that was introduced to the rest of the world through the famous, ganja loving songs of Bob Marley. It has long been associated with Rastafarian culture, and is a term often used by the Rastafarian people of Jamaica. However, that’s not where the word is thought to originate, despite what most people think.
The word “ganja” is thought to have derived from Sanskrit origins, relating specifically to the Ganges river which runs through North India. Cannabis grows wild along the banks of the Ganges river, and it is thought that the plant got its name from the sacred river near which it grew.
Perhaps the word ganja reached Jamaica after the British outlawed slavery in Jamaica. Rich, land-owning rebels decided to import slaves from India, at which point the word began circulating around this Rastafarian part of the world.
The strain name: Kush
Kush has become a popular word for referring to the cannabis plant, although it is actually the name of a specific strain of cannabis. The ancestors of the Kush plant originate from the Kush mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and this variety of cannabis pretty much forms the basis of all indica strains that are genetically bred in the modern age.
The word Kush pervades cannabis culture of just about every corner of the world. It is a term often used to describe powerful weed, especially the kind that leaves a person couch-locked. This is characteristic of the kind of weed that grows in the Kush mountain range, as they are indica varieties with powerful physical effects.
The street name: Weed
The definition of weed: a resilient, invasive plant that grows where it isn’t wanted, and competes with other plants that are wanted. There are very obvious reasons why cannabis is so often referred to as weed, especially by those who use cannabis recreationally. During the 60s and 70s, when cannabis became a popular intoxicant among the hippies and alternative community, the words “pot” and “reefer” were most commonly used. It seems that something happened in the mid 80s – early 90s, where young people wanted to distance themselves from the words that their parents were using to describe the plant. And it seems that since then, “weed” became the common way to refer to cannabis.
Cannabis, the plant of a thousand names
There are so many names for cannabis, there isn’t enough room in this article to list them all. Sixty-nine year old slang scholar, Jonathon Green, says that cannabis is one of slang’s “best customers”. This is because slang often goes hand in hand with things that you aren’t really meant to say in public. Basically, calling cannabis “cannabis” in public was incriminatory, whereas coming up with discreet names for it wasn’t.
Pot, Reefer, Herb, Chronic, 420, Green
These are all different names for the cannabis plant, and just about all of them have their own back stories, just as interesting as the ones elaborated on in this article. In India, it is common to give many “pet” names to children, loved ones and even Gods. Giving something multiple endearing names is a way to show affection, and just maybe, that is exactly what humans have been doing with cannabis for all these years.