BY BEN THOMAS
In today’s cannabis culture, the word “marijuana” feels almost obsolete, like a throwback to an earlier era. It’s the word our parents used when they warned us of “gateway drugs.” It conjures up images of 1960s music festivals, ‘30s exploitation flicks like Reefer Madness, and scowling political figures proclaiming the evils of “the devil’s lettuce”—yet despite all its cultural history, no one’s sure where the word itself comes from.
In fact, the lineage of the word “marijuana” seems to get more mysterious the deeper one digs. Some linguists claim to have traced it back to an indigenous Central American language, while others insist it originated much farther overseas, in ancient China. Still other researchers point to a birthplace closer to home, in the countryside of northern Mexico—or in the American Southwest.
Let’s take a closer look at these conflicting origin stories, and see if we can pin down the real source of this strange and formerly controversial word.
English-language writers first started referencing the term “marijuana” in the late 1800s. Or, to be more precise, they started using a lot of words that all sound like “marijuana,” which seem to be referencing different plants in different cultures and countries.
For example, when the naturalist John G. Bourke referred to an herb called mariguan, he described it as “[a plant] used by discarded women for the purpose of wreaking terrible revenge upon recreant lovers”—not exactly an ideal use for cannabis, unless these women’s “revenge” was to get their ex-lovers embarrassingly high at inconvenient times (which would, admittedly, be pretty hilarious).
Strangely enough, nobody could figure out where the word 'marijuana' came from, whereas the word "cannabis" has a clear and noble pedigree, dating back at least to ancient Greece.
The Oxford English Dictionary, meanwhile, says “marijuana” first appeared in a book called The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America, in 1873. The truth is, lots of similar-sounding words were showing up in anthropology and botany texts around that time—including mariguan, marihuano, marihuma, and (my personal favorite) mariguango!
Yet strangely enough, nobody could figure out where this word (or words) came from in the first place. Whereas the word “cannabis” has a clear and noble pedigree, dating back at least to ancient Greece—and possibly originating in the Scythian language!—words like marihuma and mariguango have no obvious connection to any other language’s term for cannabis.
So how did the word “marijuana” come to be associated with cannabis? Some say the answer lies in America’s colonial past—while others believe it comes from farther overseas.
Cannabis has a long history of cultivation in the Americas—both recreational and otherwise. For example, when Spanish conquistadores brought cannabis to Chile in the mid-1500s, they called it cáñamo, referring specifically to the hemp fibers, which were used to make sturdy ropes. In North America, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated industrial hemp on their plantations—but there’s no proof they smoked its buds recreationally.
Many African cultures, on the other hand, have valued cannabis as a sacred intoxicant for thousands of years. Enslaved African people brought cannabis seeds to plantations throughout North and South America, where they cultivated their own potent strains in secret.
Racist anti-marijuana campaigners have over-emphasized the plant’s connection to slave communities as proof of its “degenerate” origins—even claiming that the word itself came from the Nahuatl term mallihuan: "prisoner." Like the rest of these naysayers’ racist rhetoric, however, that claim has been firmly disproven.
Still, enslaved Africans weren’t the only people who carried their cannabis culture to the Americas. When Chinese laborers arrived in the Southwest throughout the 1800s, they brought their own ancient medical traditions, in which cannabis flower—known as má hua—was valued both for its health benefits and its mind-altering effects. And intriguingly, one Chinese term for cannabis seeds is má ren—so the logical combo “má ren hua” could be the “marijuana” origin we seek.
However, one final, much simpler possibility remains. What if Spanish-speaking people didn’t borrow the term “marijuana” from another language at all, but created it from a word that already existed in Spanish? In his book Cannabis: a History, researcher Martin Booth has suggested the word may come from Mexican soldiers’ slang term for a brothel: “Maria y Juana.”
Another possibility is that Spanish-speaking people adapted “marijuana” from a slang term that referenced a similar herb. The Spanish language has two words for the spice oregano: orégano and—get this—mejorana. The Spanish language has two words for the spice oregano: orégano and—get this—mejorana. And the connection doesn’t stop there. An old-school Mexican slang term for cannabis flower was orégano chino: “Chinese oregano.” Swap in the other word for the spice, and you get mejorana chino: “marijuana.” Case closed, it would seem.
So what about the eerie resemblance to the Chinese má ren hua? Is it pure coincidence, or a hint of a deeper connection? I’ll leave that one for you to puzzle out. In the meantime, please enjoy the original Spanish lyrics to the famous song La Cucaracha:
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He runs the publishing company House Blackwood, and produces the podcast Horrifying Tales of Wonder! Follow him on Twitter at @writingben.