Marijuana, reefer, weed - how language keeps evolving for the Devil’s Lettuce

Marijuana, reefer, weed - how language keeps evolving for the Devil’s Lettuce

By Laura Holson

Kush. Bud. Herb.

Who knows what to call marijuana these days?

Born of the need for secrecy, slang has long dominated pot culture. But as entrepreneurs seek to capitalize on new laws legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, they too are grappling with what to call it.

Heading to the dispensary to buy a few nugs or dabs? Marketers seeking to exploit the $10 billion market would prefer that you just called it cannabis.

Shirley Halperin, an author of 2007’s “Pot Culture: The A-Z Guide to Stoner Language and Life,” has seen the shift in recent years. Not long ago, she met with an executive to talk about his company’s products. “He physically winced when I said the word ‘pot,’” she recalled. “Businesses don’t want to call it ‘weed.’”

Cannabis, she said, “sounds like it has purpose in the world.”

Like anything, the history of pot, weed or whatever you want to call it is complicated. During the Jazz Age, when singers wrote odes to the plant, it was called dope, reefer and tea. It was a drug of choice for the hippie counterculture 30 years later, often referred to as grass. Willie Nelson sang a song about pot.

“I still call it weed,” said Tommy Chong, half of the Cheech & Chong comedy duo that defined stoner culture in the 1970s and ’80s. “Yeah, I think it’s the easiest. You can tell what age people are by the words they use.”

At Cannes Lions in June, a conference in France for marketers, a panel of experts debated the language and perception of cannabis in today’s culture. “There is a generational divide when it comes to language,” Ms. Halperin said. “What was O.K., say, 10 years ago is out now.”

Words that sounded cool in the ’60s and ’70s (remember wacky tobacky?) are woefully old-fashioned now. That’s especially true given that recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana has even broader appeal.

A good place to begin to understand the shifting language is with Peter Sokolowski, the editor at large at Merriam-Webster.

“Words we think of today as leftovers from the 1960s are really leftover from the 1930s,” he said. But it is important to look even further back, he added. Terms like cannabis and ganja go back centuries, and have long been used to describe the plant and its medicinal properties.

Indeed, the word “marijuana” was introduced to the English language as recently as 1874 and was derived from Spanish, Mr. Sokolowski said. And it was the Spaniards who brought cannabis to Mexico’s land, which they hoped to cultivate for industrial-use hemp. They had a number of spellings for the word, including “mariguana” and “marihuana.” But unlike the word “cannabis,” it picked up a negative meaning.

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