Lexicon Valley

How Will Legalization Affect the Language Around Marijuana?

Pot, hash, weed, dope, grass, bud, reefer, ganja.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia passing measures on Nov. 4 to legalize recreational marijuana, joining Colorado and Washington as U.S. regions where the sale of the drug is (or will be) legal, I thought it might be worth taking a look at the language surrounding the contested cannabis plant. Not unlike other much-discussed substances (see this previous entry on English’s many terms for being drunk), marijuana culture has gathered around it a rich linguistic history, including a rash of slang synonyms—pot, hash, weed, dope, grassbud, reefer, ganjanot to mention its own specific lingo.


With almost half the U.S. states having passed either decriminalization measures or medical marijuana laws (several states having passed both) and four states and the District of Columbia now having legalized recreational use of the drug (though no sales of the drug in D.C.), it remains to be seen how marijuana-laced language will adapt to its new and sudden (semi-)legality. Some terms will likely go out of fashion, while others (see just below) may see a marked uptick in use.


Budtenders and ganjapreneurs

One effect of the full legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado has been the rise of new words to talk about the drug’s commercialization. Thus we have the term ganjapreneur, which plays on the slang term for marijuana, ganja, and -preneur, from entrepreneur, describing a businessperson in the marijuana industry. (The lopping off of -preneur from entrepreneur has been on the rise for the past several decades, and was even enshrined by Aaron Sorkin in the 2010 film The Social Network“What’s your latest ‘preneur?”)


Another marijuana word on the rise is budtender, a compound of bud and tender modeled after bartender. The word refers to a member of the staff working at a dispensary, or a store where one can purchase medical marijuana. In the wake of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado and Washington, it looks like budtender and dispensary will live on in consumer marijuana retailers as well.

4:20 / 420 / 4/20

Despite being fairly widespread in North America—April 20 (4/20 in U.S. date notation) has become a counterculture holiday, with annual events in cities from San Francisco to Montreal—few are sure where the term 420 even originates. Widely invoked to reference many elements of marijuana culture (beyond the informal holiday), the explanations of where it originated from range far and wide, from the number being a reference to the California penal code for marijuana offenses to the police radio code for pot smokers to the favored hotel room number of the Grateful Dead.


So while the origin story of 420 remains mostly unclear, the most cogent explanation remains the one dug up by San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Maria Alicia Gaura in a 2000 article on the phenomenon, which traces 420 to a group of high school friends from San Rafael in Marin County, California. For the friends, the use of “420” became a kind of argot that they used to discuss marijuana without their parents or teachers being aware. According to one of those high school friends interviewed by Gaura’s: “It was just a joke, but it came to mean all kinds of things, like ‘Do you have any?’ or ‘Do I look stoned?’ ” he said. “Parents and teachers wouldn’t know what we were talking about.”


Unsurprisingly, some of the words associated with marijuana overlap with other illegal substances. The word joint, for instance, first served as slang for the equipment (including hypodermic needles) of an opiate addict, probably due to the use of the word in referring to opium dens in the U.K. and U.S. in the latter 19th century. (One citation in the Oxford English Dictionary locates this usage in a 1883 edition of Harper’s Magazine: “I … have smoked opium in every joint in America.”) The use of the word to describe marijuana cigarettes only gained currency in the middle of the 20th century. Similar terms include spliff, a term of West Indian origin also referring to cannabis cigarettes, and roach, which refers to the unsmoked butts of the same.


Stoners, hippies, and slackers

Marijuana users have had their fair share of labels over the years, but the most enduring, and most directly tied to this use, is probably stoner. Although not necessarily negative, the term is typically charged with a less than positive connotation, a characterization borne out by several citations in the OED, including a quote from a 1986 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune: “He was in all easy classes, the ones stoners take” and another in a 2003 article in Company magazine: “My boyfriend is a real stoner and it’s driving me mad. He just wants to stay in and get stoned with his friends and when we do go out he’s so dopey, it’s pointless.”


On the other hand, words like hippie and slacker have come to represent the credo of entire generations, despite having some somewhat similar associations with marijuana. Where hippie became the go-to descriptor for the rebellious youth of the ‘60s generation, slacker came to embody the general listlessness of the ‘90s Gen-Xers.

Gateway drug

While marijuana is not the only so-called gateway drug—alcohol and tobacco are often classified as such as well—it is the only one of the three that is broadly illegal. In recent years, however, the sense has started to shift and “gateway drug” can, often somewhat humorously, refer to any choice that leads to significant consequences.

A version of this post originally appeared on Oxford Dictionaries.

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