An Herb by Any Other Name…

By Tatiana Marta Tzara

The Ways We Speak About Cannabis Shapes Public Perception

Pot.  Weed.  Marijuana.  Bud.  Cannabis.  Dope.  These are but a few of the things that the herb that we use to help us feel better have been called, but what do you call it? 

Should we worry about what name we use to refer to cannabis casually?  I think so, because the herb has, for nearly 100 years had a “bad reputation” and since we can use it legitimately now, let’s look at some of the words that it has been called and how we can work on undoing the negative stigma behind the misnaming of this undeniably beneficial plant.

A Brief History of Cannabis

The Latin name for the herb is Cannabis sativa.  It basically means hemp, (which once was a major cash crop in Pennsylvania for most of US history).  From that we get English word cannabis.   Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines cannabis as: “a tall Asian herb (Cannabis sativa of the family Cannabaceae, the hemp family) that has a tough fiber and is often separated into a tall loosely branched species (C. sativa) and a low-growing densely branched species (C. indica): hemp  — used especially for cultivated varieties having high levels of THC”.  As you may have heard, hemp is being grown and used again for its many purposes including fibers that be used for clothes, fabric, rope, paper, plastic and more.  The cannabis that is grown for medicinal purposes usually has THC levels, like stated in Merriam-Webster.  The hemp grown for other purposes cannot be used for medical purposes since it does not have enough THC.  (We will discuss further what THC is but that will be a future article.)  Cannabis, as a word, is possibly too scientific and too much to say for many.  I admit that I usually prefer to call it cannabis, but there are times I default back to common slang per years of habit.  

The Linguistics and Logistics of How We Refer to Cannabis

Mostly, I think people still call it either dope or pot, even just weed.  These are all nicknames given to cannabis starting in the 1920s, right before it was made illegal by the Federal Government.  Led by Harry J. Anslinger, the commissioner Federal Bureau of Narcotics, cannabis was said to make people violent, crazy, and possibly homicidal. This is of course the dreaded ‘Reefer Madness’. reefer being something I’ve heard it called before by people who probably have never tried it before. Most of the people who don’t work in the medical cannabis industry still default to calling the herb one of these more popular names; These are fast and punchy words for it-I can understand why people call it this for the sake of simplicity and mutual understanding.

However, marijuana, in my opinion, is one of the least preferable things to call cannabis.  Although Pennsylvania uses it to describe its legal cannabis program, it is not used in other states for that.  Marijuana is a Spanish word that means in English, the name Maryjane.  It is a nickname that used to be used by Mexicans for cannabis that does not reflect its medicinal nature.  A name of black-market ideas and dead, racist policies rightfully left in the past. People in Texas and New Mexico especially called cannabis, marijuana- further distancing this medicinal plant from Pennsylvanian nomenclatures of the far more benign words such as: cannabis, bud, herb, and flower.  Wholesome words that harken back to Keystone state legacy of farming and agricultural pride.   I think that many people used this word, ‘Marijuana’ in place of cannabis to scare people and make them think it was some toxic, foreign drug that was “corrupting the youth of America”.  If you’ve ever used cannabis in any form, you know that is not true at all.Now that we can use cannabis legally, we should aim to call it something that gives the herb that helps us in our live with some respect.  Cannabis is one of the greatest plants in the world and it can be used for so much. 

Let’s call it by a name that respects the herb and the relief it provides for countless patients.

Tatiana Marta Tzara is a writer, musician, performer, and cannabis connoisseur. She has smoked cannabis for many years and enjoys all its benefits. Tatiana lives in the American West, under a Joshua Tree, with a burro, three cats, and a couple of ghosts. You may contact her at tzaratatiana@gmail.com

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