The Etymology of “Marijuana”: A Historical Journey Through Words

By Ruth Sable

Marihuana, marijuana, mariguana, cannabis, weed, sticky icky, hemp, kush, reefer… could a weed by any other name be as potent and the focus of a moral panic? An international traveler before there were nations, cannabis, with its many names, spread through Asia to Europe, and later to the Americas. Through historical records, we can follow cannabis on its journey and uncover the entangled etymological roots of “marijuana,” attesting once again the vital importance of social equity and racial justice when it comes to cannabis.


The cannabis plant itself has origins in Asia, domesticated and cultivated for its many uses: as a source of fiber as well as for the purposes of medical and ritual intake. Over four thousand years ago, cannabis reportedly began to be used medicinally and religiously in ancient China. As it journeyed West, it was recommended for both the creation of rope as well as a drug to provide respite from pain. Historians place cannabis traveling to North America as a companion to settlers of early New England colonies, while also suggesting an earlier and divergent journey of the plant reaching Mexico and Central America with Spanish settlers.

First brought to Mexico in 1530 by conquistador Pedro Quadardo, cannabis — then referred to as cáñamo by the Spanish settlers — took root in the soil of the new continent with the Nahautl name, pipiltzintzintlis, where it was used as medicinally, religiously, and— according to the concerned Spanish writers of the 16th through 19th centuries— as a dangerous intoxicant that was both eaten and smoked. Over time, this plant would also be referred to as rosa maria, marihuana, mariguana, and marijuana. 

By 1869, a report on Mexican legal reform proclaimed marijuana as “the herb of our country,” albeit one requiring much regulation. In 1898, news magazines reported the wide popularity of marijuana, also sold as “Indian hemp,” throughout the populace of Los Angeles. It is commonly used, locally grown, and in that same year, rounded up and burned in a public square by moralizers for what must have been, well,  an unexpectedly good time.


In the early 20th century, we can see continuations of all-too-familiar racist designations: the distinction between “Mexican Marihuana" and “American Marihuana,” with the former as a recreational smoking drug and the latter as a medicinal, potentially edible, drug. Naming is a powerful thing, and the two marihuanas went so far as to be legislated differently in the United States. However, reviewing this terminology decades later, even the DEA admitted these distinctions were imprecise, if not unhelpful. 

Coverage of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and sensational stories of people crazed by marijuana use go hand in hand. Contemporary Henry Baerlain writes of the narcotic’s unsavory presence, even in prisons, and silent actor Jack Ganzhorn mentions setting up temporary holding cells for people crazed by marihuana in the border towns of Arizona and Mexico in 1910.

By the 1920s, marijuana was known well enough that it was the reference drug for author-adventurer Charles Williams Domville Fife in comparing it to other native-to-America narcotics. Here is his description of its supposedly relieving but dangerous effects:

“[the natives of Southern Mexico] also take a drug called marihuana, which is said to have the curious effect of deadening all reasoning power, causing those who imbibe it to do whatever is most strongly implanted in their mind…. Women have been known to stand up to their necks in water for several hours— until the effect of this curious drug has worn off— because the thought of how pleasant it would be to do so was uppermost in their mind when the poison took charge of their reasoning powers. Men have walked into sea and been killed by sharks; others have murdered their relatives; and many have died of poisoning, or, as a consequence of acts committed while under this mysterious influence. Its chemical composition is, apparently, a secret, although it is believed to be made from a cactus root. It is an established fact that marihuana deadens the conscious mind, and it would appear from very observation, that it also opens the subconscious to unreasoning impressions created either by auto or outside influence, which must be acted upon by the victim.”


There are several theories about the etymological origins of the word ‘marijuana,’ some more commonly accepted or acknowledged than others. Regardless of the true origins, which may never be known, what’s clear is the importance of association between marijuana and the region known today as Mexico.


There are multiple different theories pointing to marijuana’s origins stemming from the combination of interactions between Chinese laborers and tradespeople and Spanish settlers, both of whom used cannabis as fiber and potentially as a drug, and linguistic similarities between words relating to cannabis in its drug form.

The earliest Chinese materia medica makes reference to hemp flowers as “ma hua,” stating that “to take much [of Cannabis seed] makes people see demons and throw themselves about like maniacs. But if one takes it over a long period of time one can communicate with the spirits, and one’s body becomes light, a characteristic prelude to material immortality”. Many historians and academics place the phonetic similarities between “ma ren hua” (hemp seed flowers, though not actually located in Chinese texts) alongside marihuana or “mariguana,” as it occurs in Spanish texts from settled Central America, as proof that marijuana is a word derived from the Chinese language.

Another theory places taking the “ma” loan word much earlier, where the Chinese word for hemp might have mixed with the Arabic “mrj” (relating to hemp) or the Semitic word “mrr” (bitter) and traveling from Moorish Spain to America for its further transformations into marihuana and marijuana.

Yet theory posits the origins as in “mejorana chino,” a possible (but unverified) colloquialism of cannabis as “Chinese oregano.”


Another theory draws a connection between ‘maconha’ (marijuana in Brazilian Portugese), ma’kana (marijuana in a Bantu dialect in Angola), the Portugese slave trade bringing Angolans to Brazil, and the terminology spreading through the rest of the Americas. 



One of the more popular origin myths of the word marijuana is that it is derived from a lost word from Nahuatl, the language of the indigenous peoples of Southern Mexico and Central America, possibly relating to ‘mallihuan,’ the Nahuatl word for prisoner. This is popular but contested theory, even in the OED listing for the word marijuana. A slight twist on this theory follows much the same logic but places the origin language as Quecha.


We can, however, account for the transformation from marihuana and mariguana to marijuana and its popularization as such: pronunciation, translation, and Anglicization. In primary sources of the era (i.e., late 1800s and early 1900s), you find both ‘marijuana’ and ‘marihuana’ used in reference to drugs and products sourced from the cannabis plant.

Nahuatl, perhaps the primary origin language for the word ‘marihuana, deploys an “hu” consonant character that is made with an opening pursed lip. Spanish-speaking colonizers of the Nahuatl-speaking Atzec would have maintained the pronunciation and sound of these native words, but may have changed the “hu” to a “j.” See “the soft jota”.  This is a fairly uncommon mouth-shape for the English language, so the word, its spelling, and pronunciation, like other borrowed words, shifts over time. For marijuana, you would then find that Nahuatl-derived “soft jota” flattens to become the pronunciation of a “w” sound in the English spoken language as the “hu” turns into a “j”.


Other theories place the ‘marijuana’ as deriving from everyday life in the colonizing/ed Americas, with origins from the combination of Spanish female names ‘Mary’ and ‘Juana’, possibly in reference to female cannabis sellers, or to revolutionary groups, ‘Juanes,’ whose Otherness was also associated with cannabis.


“Mariguana” is an island in the Atlantic that is well documented in naval maps of the Spanish and British seafaring era. The name of this island, en route to Central America, was possibly borrowed and lent its name to cannabis. There is zero evidence for this as an origin name, but shows when searching for “mariguana” in the historical archives, meriting a mention.

Whatever the etymological origin, the international spotlight on cannabis included a narrative of its supposed consumption as a drug in Mexico, and those associations linger on today.


So, when should you use the term ‘marijuana,’ versus ‘cannabis,’ versus ‘hemp,’ or any of the other terms mentioned in this article? While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, here’s a general reefer-ence guide to usefully switch between the terms:

  • ‘Marijuana,’ ‘cannabis,’ and ‘weed’ can be used interchangeably although the two former terms are slightly more technical. Get a little more specific and technical by referring to specific cultivars and strains with your dispensary provider of choice, or other weed enthusiasts with discerning taste. ‘Marijuana’ and ‘weed’ typically refer to the resinous flowering  tops of the cannabis plant, processed for smoking, eating, or other methods of ingestion.
  • For growers and botanists, you may want to stick to “Cannabis” and its cultivars to distinguish between plant types. 
  • Save ‘hemp’ references for discussions about cannabis’ alternate lifestyle as a fiber, or textile source, or some dad-humor relating to Benjamin Franklin.
  • ‘Ganja,’ ‘kushkush,’ ‘Bhang,’ ’dope,’ ‘weed,’ ‘reefer,’ ‘Mary Jane’ may all be deployed at your own preference and leisure! However, these terms tend to refer to weed in a general sense. So if you’re using the word to procure your stash, be sure to specify strains or characteristics to ensure you’re getting the herb you desire. 

Still confused? Here’s our guide to choosing California weed strains and a technical guide to names for Cannabis for nonbotanists.

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