Lexicon Valley

How Weed Became the Hippest Slang Term for Marijuana


Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

In a piece the other day about Ronan Farrow’s new MSNBC chat show, Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times noted that Farrow “made an effort to seem hip. He referred to marijuana as ‘weed’ and made an aside about the Ukrainian opposition leader, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who was recently freed from prison, saying that she ‘also has amazing hair.’”

Yes, weed is apparently the broadly hippest current term for marijuana, that venerable fount of slang. If I close my eyes and think about Conan O’Brien making a joke on the subject or Seth Rogen actually saying anything at all, weed is the word I imagine them saying. And indeed, just the other day, Rogen tweeted this:

(You can watch a video of Rogen’s testimony, which concerned the Alzheimer’s disease of his mother-in-law, by clicking here, but I warn you that the joke, which comes in the first minute, isn’t that funny.)

Marijuana itself is an Anglicized corruption of mariguana or marihuana, Spanish terms for the Cannabis sativa plant, traditionally known in English as hemp. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the “currency” of marijuana “increased greatly in the United States in the 1930s in the context of the debate over the use of the drug, the term being preferred as a more exotic alternative to the familiar words hemp and cannabis.”

Most of the slang variations date to that period as well, including weed. In 1929, American Speech included it “Among the New Words” and defined it as “marijuana cigarette.” Three years later, the OED cites Chicago Defender as reporting, “The humble ‘reefer,’ ‘the weed,’ the marijuana, or what have you by way of a name for a doped cigarette has moved to Park Ave. from Harlem.” It doesn’t surprise me that the first author cited using the term in its currently popular manner (no the in front, referring to the drug in general rather than to a cigarette) was the master, Raymond Chandler: “They were looking for … a suitcase full of weed.” (The Little Sister, 1949.)

For decades, weed lurked in the weeds, as it were. Google’s Ngram Viewer (showing relative frequency in American printed sources) gives a rough sense that it started making its move to prominence in the early 1990s:

Ngram Viewer includes data only through 2008, but it appears the trend has continued and weed is now on top. In Google Books searches confined to 2013 publications, smoke marijuana pops up 69 times, smoke pot 94 times, and smoke weed 149 times. That is also the sense one gets from Urban Dictionary, whose users have been inspired to contribute 225 separate definitions for weed. The most popular one, with more than 39,000 “up” votes, was posted by “AYB” and is short and sweet: “God’s gift to the world. Brings peace when used wisely.” Although Urban Dictionary’s custom is to follow the definition with an example of the word used in a sentence, AYB was apparently too distracted to comply and gave the sentence, “Pass the blunt, dude.”

Urban Dictionary also offers definitions for the weed derivatives weeda, Weedabis, Weedable, Weedache, WeedAcres, Weedacus, Weedafarian, Weedagasm, weedage, Weedaginity, Weedaholic, Weed aint no drug, weedajuana, Weed Album, Weedalicious, Weed and Feed, weed and pussy, Weed Angel, weed anthem, weedar, Weedarded, Weedarm, weedasaurous-rex, and Weed-ash.

Consequently, it didn’t surprise me that the wrong-number text message recently left on my phone concluded: “And I have no weed.”

Why the recent weed dominance? It seems clear to me that it’s a generational thing. In the 1990s, a new generation of users wanted to distance themselves from their parents’ dope or pot (the latter dates from the 1930s and apparently originated in African-American slang). Weed was already in the lexicon, and provided a nice implicit variation on the hippie-ish grass.

Plus, its funny. For some time, it has been generally understood that anything related to marijuana is or is potentially humorous. This is probably due to a combination of factors: the illicitness of the drug, the fact that stoned people sometimes giggle, the fact that their actions can be perceived as comical (viz., Cheech and Chong), the widespread sense that unlike, say, alcohol or heroin, weed is not ultimately harmful. In any case, I, for one, chuckle when confronted with the word weedar. Not to mention “the munchies.”

Weed has not completely penetrated mainstream journalism. The slang term most often found there is pot, probably partly because it’s so useful in headlines. Just the other day, my local Philadelphia Inquirer had an article called “Pot an Election Issue?” that used marijuana eleven times, pot six (not including the headline), and cannabis and weed one time each.

The New York Times is a bit more proper and allows weed in its news columns only in direct quotations, as in the Ronan Farrow case. Otherwise it sticks to marijuana, even in the face of extreme word repetition. A front-page article published last week, “Pivotal Point Is Seen on Legalizing Marijuana,” uses marijuana 27 times (not including the headline) with the only variations being “the drug” and (once) “cannabis.”

Times columnists follow different rules, of course. A couple of months ago, David Brooks published a column that took a dim view of marijuana legalization. It began:

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

But then we all sort of moved away from it. I don’t remember any big group decision that we should give up weed. It just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.

One does not associate David Brooks with uninhibited frolic. He is actually sort of the anti-Seth Rogen, and if the two of them are both using weed, I predict Rogen will fairly quickly start using something else. Something else as a word, that is.

A version of this post appeared on Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog.