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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.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
image of cannabis

GG: Right, it sounds lovely. "Medical marijuana," all those wonderful sounds.

DB: It does and it's also, you know, it was felt it's very important to use the words that people understand. And “cannabis” has had a big resurgence as a word, and I think that's important, but particularly going back 20 or even 30 years, you would use the word "cannabis" and many people would not know at all what you were referring to. And it's very important when you make people understand, "look at the incredible medicinal benefits of this plant," that it's the plant you're thinking of. It's the same plant that the government is telling you all of these lies about so that there's not confusion or this idea that there's a "good plant" and a "bad plant." They're the same plant.

GG: Right. And when you're setting up a new industry, you have to use words that people understand. For example, sometimes people say that—complain that "chai tea" is redundant. But in the beginning, if people just called it "chai," people wouldn't have known what it was—that it was a type of tea. So, you know, there's etymology and all types of the word considerations, but one of them is just when you're setting up a new industry it’s important to have people understand what you're selling.

DB: Of course! And then at the same time, you know if the government is going to call it "marijuana" and use that as a badge to oppress people and we have this wonderful underground subculture that's embracing it, that's where we start to see some of these new in-words coming up from these slang terms coming up. One of my favorites is "reefer." And the origin of that is a "reef," a nautical term for sort of rolling up a sail so that it's smaller and more compact and can be stored. And of course if you think of what that looks like, it looks like a rolling up a cigarette in a way. And a lot of these terms have nautical origins because that's how the reefer or cannabis or marijuana itself would be showing up—on ships. So I think that that's a fascinating one —it's adapted by the jazz community. And on the one hand, it's this underground term, and on the other hand, we have find this whole kind of part of our history as the reefer-madness era because we've split — where the people who are most familiar with this plant revere it, and the people who are trying to suppress it and trying honestly to suppress and oppress the people using it, they both use this term in very different ways. But it has the same kind of connotation.

GG: Slang is so great. That's fascinating — the origin of "reefer." And because it was sort of an underground thing for almost—I guess almost a hundred years—there are many, many slang words because when you try to keep something sort of on the down low, you make up words for it so that other people don't know what you're talking about. What are some of the other fun ones with interesting stories?

DB: Well, yeah, there's "ganja," which we would mostly associate at this point with Rastafarians in Jamaica, is actually a word that comes from Sanskrit. It comes out of Hindu culture. There's many important ceremonies that involve cannabis in that religion, and how it ends up in this religious in the Caribbean is that first the English colonize India, and then they are moving laborers from India to what's sometimes called the West Indies, or in the Caribbean. They bring not just ganja, but the word with them and one thing you can say about this plant, whatever you're calling it, is that wherever it goes, people like it. So the native population of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands adopt the custom. They adopt the word. The word changes a little bit in how it's spelled and pronounced and that's where "ganja" comes from.

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