08 May 2017

Cannabis by any other name

It is called pot, weed, Mary Jane, reefer, sticky-icky and is known by other names. This psychotropic plant's scientific name is cannabis, and for a long time that was its only name.

In the early 1900s, the more common term marijuana (or marihuana) became common in the United States. That term is usually listed as having a Mexican origin. I also found that it may have a Chinese origin and that ma ren and ma hua refer to different parts of the plant. I found an
etymology that is Arabic and it arrived in Mexico via Moorish Spain.

By any name, the cannabis plant's origin is Asia, and we know that humans have been cultivating the plant for at least 6,000 years. Stems were used for fibers and the fruits eaten.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest usages of cannabis meaning the plant "common hemp, Cannabis sativa" in 1548 and meaning parts of the plant "smoked, chewed, or drunk for their intoxicating or hallucinogenic properties" in 1848. The OED traces the etymology to the New Latin botanical term cannabis – proposed in 1728 and standardized in Carl Linnaeus's (1753) Species Plantarum – from an earlier Latin cannabis, coming from Greek kánnabis.

Hemp is called ganja from Sanskrit. Some scholars suggest that the ancient drug soma, mentioned in the Vedas, was cannabis, although this theory is disputed.

That Chinese connection comes from the pen-ts’ao ching, the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia. The book was a compilation of Chinese oral traditions that are 5000 years old. The text cites the plant being used for many conditions including constipation and malaria. It also notes that it has hallucinogenic qualities.

In India, cannabis was considered one of five sacred plants. It is mentioned in Judaism’s Talmud. Cannabis pollen and oil has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs of pharaohs, such as Ramses II. Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Scythians used the plant in funereal rites in 450 B.C. A study published in the South African Journal of Science showed that "pipes dug up from the garden of Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon contain traces of cannabis.

Illustration from the Vienna Dioscurides, 512 AD
 Arabic words at left appear to be qinnab bustani or "garden hemp"
As for the many other names given to the plant when consumed, marijuana became associated with the personal name María Juana ('Mary Jane') and is probably a folk etymology.

As a slang term "pot" came into use in America in the late 1930s. It is a shortening of the Spanish potiguaya or potaguaya that came from potación de guaya, a wine or brandy in which marijuana buds have been steeped. It literally means “the drink of grief.”

The term "reefer" for a marijuana cigarette also seems to have come from a 1930s Americanized mispronunciation of the Mexican Spanish grifa.

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