Cannabis slang: why is marijuana called “pot”?
There are more than 1,200 nicknames for cannabis, some more familiar than others. Ganga, weed, reefer and bud are some of the most-used and familiar, while alfalfa, Green Goddess and muggle —a 1920’s term for a pot smoker and not a non-magical person — are less well-known.
According to slang scholar Jonathon Green, drugs like cannabis are slang’s “best sellers” because slang consists of words and phrases, think codewords or inside jokes, intended to stand in for an actual thing or topic considered too taboo for conversations in polite society.
Of course, one of cannabis’ best-known nicknames is pot, but of all of the dozens and dozens of nicknames, the word “pot” standing in for cannabis seems a bit odd. Marijuana doesn’t remotely resemble the shape of a cooking pot, nor is it the color of one. So where did this odd-ish term come from?
Origins and history of cannabis slang terms
Green keeps an online database that lists slang grouped by what inspired the term, like “history,” “meaning” or “usage.” For example, the common cannabis nickname, “bud,” is grouped with other plant-derived marijuana nicknames like green, grass and herb. More slang names like chronic and dank are grouped under the “quality” category.
The word “marijuana” is itself a slang term categorized under “language.” However, despite its common use, advocates and others in the cannabis industry are working to familiarize consumers with the term cannabis instead of marijuana (which is the Spanish word for the plant) because of its racist history and affiliation with illicit markets.
The etymological argument on the slang term “pot” is far from settled, but one hypothesis of the nickname’s origin reaches back to the Mexican Revolution (1910—1924). The theory goes that Mexican immigrants in the crosshairs of revolution fled their country to make lives in the U.S., many of whom brought cannabis with them.
With that in mind, the term pot, which like marijuana is categorized “because of language,” may derive from the Spanish word potiguaya, meaning marijuana leaves.
From literature to pop culture
How the term “pot” came into general usage is not very clear, but a prevailing speculation is that the term was popularized by author Chester Himes, who wrote in the short story “The Way We Live Now,” in 1938, “She made him smoke pot and when he got jagged [high]. she put him on the street.”
But these are all just theories, and no one really knows with certainty how “pot” came to be. However, Green told Time Magazine that with any slang, as soon as “adults or authorities become wise to what a term means, then it’s time for a new one.” So, eventually, maybe the term will eventually go to pot.
Featured image by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
One of cannabis' best-known nicknames is pot, but of all of the dozens and dozens of nicknames, the word “pot” standing in for cannabis seems a bit odd.
Why Do We Call Marijuana Pot?
The unofficial history of the term “pot.”
by Macey W. – August 12, 2019
Most drugs come with a slew of slang terms referring to them, and cannabis is no exception. Back in the day, before Americans were using the plant recreationally, it was just known as cannabis and used in medical applications. Today, we’ve got dozens of ways to refer to the plant, and “pot” is one of the more common choices.
Not for cooking
Although you can certainly use a pot to whip up a stellar cannabutter, there is no connection between the kitchen tool and the drug.
It seems the most agreed-upon explanation of where the term “pot” came from is from the Spanish term “potacian de guaya” or “potiguaya,” referring to an alcoholic concoction of wine or brandy steeped with marijuana leaves. The term means “drink of grief.”
I’m no language expert, but I have not been able to find anything validating these words and their origins. What I did find while searching the term was a lot of controversy over what’s true and what’s not.
Unfortunately, it seems we’re stuck with this association that may or may not be accurate. There’s a good chance the origin of “pot” was falsely attributed with “potiguaya” and eventually became an accepted explanation with nothing better to argue it with.
The term “pot” has been in circulation since at least the 1930s. Civilized says author Chester Himes referred to smoking pot in a short story from 1938. Other dictionaries attribute the term to the 1930s as well, saying it probably comes from a Spanish term for cannabis leaves.
The term “pot” stemming from a “drink of grief” consisting of wine or brandy infused with cannabis is mostly speculation. There is no concrete answer as to where the word originated.
The other most common theory out there is “it’s called pot because you grow it in a pot.” Take that as you will, but I’m going to stick with the more likely scenario that pot originated from a cannabis-steeped alcoholic drink.
Connotations of the term
It’s safe to say that people still like to refer to cannabis as pot, though it has become less frequent as terms like “weed” among the younger generation of smokers.
Still, calling cannabis “pot” comes with its own issues, especially for those trying to change the stigma around the plant. The term still conjures up imagery of lazy, tie-dyed stoners sitting around a table That ‘70s style.
In one example, a man dressed in a three-piece business suit who appeared at a San Diego city councilor’s office to lobby for cannabis laws was met with “where’s the pot guy?” Since he didn’t fit the councilor’s preconceived notion of what a “pot guy” was, he wasn’t even recognized as the man ready to lobby for better laws.
In an industry that is still getting its start, the stigma of lazy, unmotivated or even unintelligent people smoking up doobies and getting nothing done is extremely damaging. The imagery some attach to pot “deeply bothers the marijuana industry, which is telling the public — sometimes gently, sometimes curtly — that they should use the word cannabis.”
Others in the industry point out that terms like “pot” and “weed” fail to highlight the scientific side of the plant and ignore the numerous medical benefits associated with cannabis. Just hearing the term “pot shop” or “weed store” can turn older generations off from seeking out cannabis products because of the negative connotations with the words.
Journalists struggle with using the right terminology for their audiences as well. Terms like “pot”, “weed”, and “marijuana” all have their own unique connotations with years of history behind them, and the potential to set other readers off. It seems “cannabis” is the best way to go to avoid upsetting others when referring to the plant.
Final pot thoughts
The general consensus is that the term “pot” originates from the Spanish term “potiguaya” meaning “the drink of grief”, a mixture of brandy or wine with cannabis leaves. While several dictionaries and sources claim this origin story, there’s no concrete evidence to back this up.
Wherever the term came from, it’s still extremely prevalent today. Many people in the industry want the term to be replaced with cannabis because it’s the real name of the plant and leaves less room for negative stigma.
If you’re trying to convince your conservative aunt that using cannabis may help ease her aches and pains, is she more likely to be receptive to “let’s go to the pot shop” or “let’s go to the cannabis dispensary?”
The history of how we started calling cannabis "pot" is muddled in lore and inability to fact-check. Here's where most people think it came from.