News & Comment » Green Zone

What's In a Name?

Some say that cannabis slang words are offensive. Really?

by

Would you call this "marijuana" or "weed"? Some people wish you wouldn't.
  • Would you call this "marijuana" or "weed"? Some people wish you wouldn't.

"Language is important because it defines our ideas. Words have a power that transcends their formal meaning. When we change words, we can also change the thoughts that underlie them."

That is the vaguely Orwellian opinion of the Bay Area medical marijuana dispensary Harborside Health Center, and what seems to be a prevailing trend in the growing cannabis industry. How do you take something that has long lurked in the shadows of black markets and countercultures and bring it into the mainstream? Flush a few stereotypes down the memory hole.

"Marijuana" is apparently the most derogatory of the slang words some commercial players are trying to scrub from the American lexicon. "Most cannabis users recognize the 'M word' as offensive, once they learn its history," says Harborside Health Center.

The etymology of the term isn't crystal clear, but it's generally agreed that the term is an Anglicized mutation of the Spanish word mariguana or marihuana, and that it entered English vocabularies when migrant workers from Mexico brought it with them to the United States in the early 20th century. A popular historical narrative posits that Harry Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, used racially charged scare tactics (because "marijuana" sounds foreign and was a common intoxicant in black jazz circles) to push Congress into criminalizing and prohibiting the plant, which it eventually did in 1937.

The stigma has remained, say today's proponents, despite an increasing acceptance of cannabis by Americans. What's at stake? The very legitimacy of an industry still emerging from the haze of an illicit past.

"When we're talking to media, media will use every other word [except cannabis]. They'll use the 'M' word, the 'P' word. Lots of other words," says Privateer Holdings CEO Brendan Kennedy in Big Pot: The Commercial Takeover, a new CBS News documentary. "And they don't use slang words when they talk about alcohol. You know, you don't interview a CEO of an alcohol company and say, 'So let's talk about booze,' or 'Let's talk about hooch.' 'Tell me about firewater.'"

But not everyone hears "marijuana" and cries foul. "Marijuana is the terminology used in legal statutes. It is also the preferred terminology among scientists and researchers in the field," argues Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

A debate last year on a Reddit internet forum highlighted other dissenting beliefs. "Admiral_Pantsless" said, "I don't know. 'Marijuana' is kind of a pretty word." 

"Hazy_V" concurred, kind of. "If your position involves semantics, you're just trying to look busy. Redefining words isn't going to do the hard work of changing hearts and minds after they believed all kinds of ridiculous lies."

The participant "biotwist" boiled it down the furthest and defended the media, which has taken the brunt of the criticism: "Pot is just easier to spell." ♦