An Evolution of Marijuana Slang Through the Years

The English lexicon is laden with ‘slang’ terms, which are classified as informal words and phrases restricted to a particular group of people or context. As it happens, marijuana has more slang terms than most – over 1,000 words according to Jonathan Green, the writer of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

It isn’t difficult to determine why cannabis has so many slang names. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively made the herb illegal, and it was classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in 1970. Therefore, anyone who has tried to buy pot during the last 80 years has needed to speak in code.

Weed lovers came up with a variety of names for the illicit substance, and as these slang terms became known, more and more were created. In this article, we look through the different slang terms used for marijuana during the last century or so, beginning in the early part of the 20th century.

The Immigrant Wave & Condemnation (1910 – 1936)

Up until the early part of the 20th century, marijuana was used as medicine. You may be surprised to learn that ‘marijuana’ is just another slang term for the plant officially known as cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, or cannabis ruderalis. According to Green, the term marijuana probably came from the Panamanian word managuango or the Mexican word mariguano, both of which mean ‘intoxicant.’

The word entered usage from the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, which caused an enormous number of Mexican migrants to flee to the United States. They were among the first people to use weed recreationally, and it soon became associated with ‘unruly’ Mexicans who caused trouble after using ‘marihuana.’

Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, launched his war on weed in the 1930s, culminating in the dreadful Reefer Madness movie in 1936 which demonized the herb. It may have been a laughably bad production, but it had the desired effect as public opinion shifted markedly against marijuana.

Incidentally, the term ‘ganja’ predates ‘marijuana’, as it was used during the middle of the 19th century in Jamaica. Ganja is the Sanskrit word for the hemp plant.

Illegality & The Creation of a Million Nicknames (1937 – 1970)

The hysteria surrounding cannabis reached astounding levels in the 1930s, which allowed the government to bring the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 into law. The act made weed federally illegal, and possession, cultivation or sale of the herb came with stiff penalties. Those who understood the power of cannabis refused to buckle under this pressure, and people who purchased or sold it knew it was necessary to begin speaking about weed in coded terms.

In 1943, TIME Magazine wrote an article about marijuana and used a ton of nicknames in the process. The article referred to the herb as ‘giggle-smokes’, ‘goof-butts’, ‘Mary Warner’, ‘Mary Jane’, ‘loco-weed’, ‘bambalacha’, ‘moocah’, ‘blue sage’, ‘grass’, ‘mohasky’, ‘mu’, ‘mooter’, ‘muggles’, and ‘Indian Hay’, among other terms. Apparently, individuals looking to purchase weed at the time were called ‘vipers’, while sellers were known as ‘pushers.’ A viper would sidle up to a pusher and say one of the following to get their precious moocah:

  • Gimme an ace.
  • Are ya stickin’?
  • Are ya layin’ down the hustle?
  • Gimme a deuce.
  • Gimme a deck.

The reason why you’ve probably never heard of 90% of these terms is that they faded into history over time.

By the 1960s, pot normally consisted of dried, crumbled stems and leaves, so it was commonly referred to as ‘grass.’ Another widely used word to describe marijuana during this era was ‘dope.’ This term was initially used to refer to opium or a morphine derivative. In the 1950s, dope came to be related specifically to cannabis. It fell out of favor within a generation, as heroin became the next drug to carry the ‘dope’ tag.

‘Pot’ probably came from the Spanish word potiguaya, which is a contraction of the name for an alcoholic drink created by soaking weed leaves in wine or brandy (potacion de guaya). Pot was widely used from the 1930s until the 1970s.

The term ‘kush’ probably originated in the 1950s, as it was the beginning of the famed ‘hippie trail.’ Members of the hippie subculture made a trek to Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Afghanistan and brought back seed from the Hindu Kush plants that grew in the disputed region of the same name.

Out of the Wilderness (1970 – 1999)

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which meant it was perceived as one of the world’s most dangerous narcotics. Although we had just left the era of peace, love, and a hell of a lot of marijuana use, the herb was being driven deeper underground, which meant further nicknames were necessary.

One of the most famous slang terms for weed originated in the 1970s. ‘Skunk’ referred to the powerful smell of the herb, which was deemed to be ‘skunky.’ The term ‘420’ also originated in the 1970s. There is a dispute over the precise origins of this term; some claimed it came from the Grateful Dead’s room number of choice while on tour, while others say it was the time (4:20 pm) when four High School students met in San Rafael, California, to smoke weed in front of a statue of Louis Pasteur.

The term ‘weed’ only came to prominence from the mid-1990s onward. It was included in American Speech’s ‘New Words’ in 1929 and occasionally used in newspaper articles on marijuana. However, it only became one of the most popular slang words for cannabis in the 1990s. We aren’t 100% sure why, but it is probably due to its ability to grow in the wild under harsh conditions, just like weeds.

Yet another slang term to arise from the 1990s was ‘Chronic,’ apparently first used by Snoop Dogg. It spread through pop culture and was used by Dr. Dre as a name for one of his albums. According to Snoop, he misheard someone talk about growing cannabis at a party. They said they grew their weed using hydroponics, and Snoop thought that the person said ‘hydrochronic’! He liked the sound of the word and shortened it to ‘chronic.’

The Glorious Return of Cannabis (2000 – Present) & Other Slang Terms

Public opinion has now shifted in favor of legalizing marijuana medicinally. 33 states plus D.C. have legalized the herb either for this purpose or recreationally. Incredibly, even the state of Utah has joined the party! As such, the need for creating secret terms for marijuana is dwindling but as people love creating ‘nicknames,’don’t expect the flow of slang to slow down anytime soon.
We expect marijuana and weed to remain as popular terms, but there are dozens more that you might not be aware of. For example, some people call it ‘Alfalfa,’ ‘Asparagus,’ ‘Bud,’ ‘Thirteen,’ ‘Blunt,’and ‘da kine’ (in Hawaii mostly).

There are also slang words and phrases associated with cannabis for various reasons. Bad quality weed is called ‘Cabbage,’ ‘Nixon’ or ‘Catnip,’, for example. A ‘stogie’ or ‘blunt’ refers to the way a joint is shaped, while ‘ace,’ ‘baby,’and ‘green goddess’ are terms of affection for the herb.
The end of a joint is known as a ‘roach,’ while the practice of holding on to a joint for too long is known as a ‘Bogart,’ named after the legendary actor, Humphrey Bogart, who was famed for keeping a cigarette dangling on the end of his lips as he spoke. Finally, the morning ritual of ‘wake and bake’ relates to the use of weed first thing in the morning.

As cannabis culture becomes more mainstream, you can expect even more nicknames and slang terms. Although you could try and keep up to stay ‘hip,’ it may be better to simply stick to the classics: We doubt there will be a time when weed and marijuana are not acceptable slang terms for cannabis.