The History of the Word 'Weed' with David Bienenstock

Grammar Girl joins David Bienenstock, co-host of "Great Moments in Weed History," to talk about the origin and evolution of weed terminology in this bonus episode for Stitcher Premium.

Mignon Fogarty
12-minute read

DB: Yeah, some people try to—the people involved with the campaign wanted to call it "adult use," and that also gets into politics. You know, they're trying to have that word “adult” be first and foremost. Obviously a lot of people who do have concerns about cannabis and cannabis use. Some of those primary concerns are around children and younger adolescents, so rather than going with recreational, they chose "adult use" in all of their political campaigning.

GG: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, we don't call it “recreational alcohol” or “recreational tobacco.” That would just—and there's one thing I do know: words matter. So, as I was looking at the title of your podcast, "Great Moments in Weed History," one of my first questions was why did you choose to use the word "weed"? There's so many options. Why was "weed" the when you decided to use?

DB: Yeah, absolutely. But, you know I've been writing about this subject for about 15 years. So one thing I always like to say is I am grateful that there's many different words to describe this plant because I've probably written about a million words about it at this point, and I wouldn’t want to be that repetitive. But they all have their meanings, and they all have their labors, and they all have their sort of sub rosa indications to people. For our show, "cannabis" would feel a little too stiff and formal. You know?

GG: Mm-hm.

DB: “Marijuana”—and we can get into this, I'm sure we will—has some really racist history and undertone. That doesn't mean that I find the word racist or that every time it's used I am personally offended by it, but we certainly didn't want to use that word in the title. “Weed”—and especially sort of over the last 5 years as I've been tracking this—has really filled that space in between the two. It doesn't have the bad connotations of "marijuana." It doesn't have the sort of pharmaceutical, medical—you know "cannabis" is the official word you would find in scientific nomenclature. And "weed" is sort of a cultural in-word, and we want the show to appeal to as many people as possible, but we also wanted to indicate from the top we're cannabis enthusiasts and historians and media makers and journalists. This is a show for you if you feel comfortable smoking weed or being around weed or at least learning about it. So yeah, that was kind of our thinking.

GG: Yeah, that makes sense. I just, when I hear it, you know, weed is something you get rid of from your garden. It's the bad stuff that you want to pull and throw away. But I understand that in the culture, it's a lot more neutral or at least more positive.

DB: Yeah, and I think that definition that you described is right in why it's had this resurgence of almost reclaiming these words that have been used in a negative sense against the group, by the group itself. You know, I wouldn't expect "weed"—we think of it in the way, I believe Thoreau said, weed is a plant you just haven't found a use for. And we really feel society is coming to realize that this quote-unquote weed, this plant that the government spent so much money and energy and really ruined so many people's lives trying to eradicate is not only not bad, it's incredibly useful. And so in reclaiming that word, we're reclaiming that idea.

GG: Right. That's great. And I mean, dandelion leaves are apparently delicious and nutritious too. People put them in salads. So there are all kinds of good weeds. So before we decided to talk, I didn't know that marijuana and cannabis were actually different things. Can you give some background on what are we even talking about right now?


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.