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: Well, sure. I mean that gets into a pretty fine point because I think those words are often used interchangeably. But in a more technical sense, cannabis is the entire plant and cannabis includes hemp, which is not psychoactive, has its own incredibly long history as a useful industrial plant to make textiles, The Age of Exploration was completely fueled by hemp sails allowing you to sail longer—there's a whole incredibly interesting history of hemp. The difference between cannabis and marijuana in a technical sense is marijuana can be used to refer simply to the flowering tops of the plant, which is where we find the psychoactivity, the THC. And so that can be an attempt to say, well, cannabis is a plant and marijuana is a drug or primarily a drug-like substance. Often those two words are, however, used completely interchangeably.

GG: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. I was really surprised to learn—I was surfing through etymology online, as one does, and I discovered that “cannabis” and “canvas” comes from the same root because canvas, the fabric, was originally made from hemp. So I thought that was a fascinating tidbit.

DB: Yeah, as so much of our history—the first American flag was made of hemp, hemp farming was an incredibly important part of the early colonial and precolonial economy in what became the United States, vast fortunes and vast wars were fought over hemp.

So that history is fascinating and long and in many ways, not to get too far into it, our turning away from it has been really to our detriment ecologically, economically. And there's a movement right now in Congress that is moving very rapidly to re-legalize hemp cultivation and make it an important crop here in the United States and ultimately whatever happens in the United States can spread around the world. All of our modern prohibitions against cannabis, hemp, marijuana, began in the United States and were hoisted on the rest of the world, and so as we dial that back and return to sanity and re-embrace this plant, that will bring that change hopefully everywhere else.

GG: Right, because as I understand it, hemp is a very sustainable crop. It's an environmentally friendly way to produce a lot of things that we need. So let's get back to the words. Tell me some stories about the words.

DB: Yeah. Well, I think when we talk about why—you know, there are people within the cannabis movement who absolutely call it the "m-word" and that's meant to be lighthearted and not to cause a rift.

GG: I had no idea there were racist connotations, so you can you give the listeners who also might not know a little bit of background on that?

DB: Sure, so prior to 1910 just the word “marijuana” is nowhere to be found in American culture, but “cannabis” is being used to refer to these pharmaceutical tinctures and other sort of extracts that you might find at an early pharmacy—And they're made by Eli Lilly and Bristol-Myers Squibb and sort of these first-generation pharmaceutical companies. It was something your doctor would prescribe to you for a lot of the things that cannabis is prescribed for now. Then starting around 1910, we see a huge influx of Mexican immigrants who are fleeing the war. Almost a million in Mexico come into the United States. They're leaving the Mexican Civil War almost as refugees. And one of the most wonderful things they bring with them is not just cannabis, but a propensity for smoking it which is completely new. It comes to be called "marijuana" as a word they're using. It travels along with the plant. Where this becomes problematic is, not to shock anybody, but a certain percentage of people are and always will be frightened of immigrants.

And this fear of immigrants becomes a fear of this plant and then this campaign against immigration pulls this plant into it. And this is where we see what we now think of is the reefer-madness era where the common conception and really bad—some of the earliest, worst news in the United States was these stories that one puff of a marijuana cigarette will make you kill your whole family and, you know, you'll be dead in thirty days if you smoke this. And so we start seeing the first laws against, sometimes called "loco weed," sometimes called "marijuana," sometimes "marihuana" spelled with an "H" to sort of make it seem more exoticized right around the same time of this immigration, 1913 in California. And by the ‘30's, in 1937, we have the first federal prohibition against "marihuana" spelled with an "H." And we've been digging out from under that terrible legacy ever since. Both the laws and the people implementing them were overtly racist, and so that's where we see a lot of people—myself included—you know, I don't find myself using the word marijuana very often. I think the one exception is when the quote-unquote "medical marijuana" movement really begins to take off, that is how it was always used. It was used by people who were the furthest thing from having a racial motivation. I think alliteration had some part in it.


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.