Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg

(Photo: Courtesy of Kathleen Miller)

Reaching for the reefer, celebrating 4/20 or lighting up a little “hay” is no longer a secret in Colorado. It’s been legal to buy weed here for nine months now, and the drug’s movement into the mainstream may not just be changing how people consume the substance, it might also be shifting our vocabulary.  

Words and metaphors people use to talk about marijuana have made the drug sound innocent and innocuous (mary jane, grass, herb) and transgressive and underground (chronic, dope, Don Juan). Since the drug has historically been used in the shadows, it’s bred a lot of inventive language. Take the word pot, for example, says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at UC Berkeley and NPR "Fresh Air" contributor.

“Pot probably comes from the Mexican ‘potiguaya,’ which is a word for seeds, which may come from the expression ‘potacion de gauays,’ which would mean ‘a sorrow soup,’ which was some kind of concoction involving marijuana," he says. "How it got shortened to ‘pot’ is unclear, but it was probably around the 1930s that Americans started using that word.”

As more states legalize marijuana for medical and/or recreational use, “it becomes less important to be cute or coy,” he says. “Some of that language will disappear.”

The term “marijuana” emerged in the United States in the 1930s and 40s, as states began to outlaw the drug and smoking became a secret behavior. Derived from Mexican-Spanish, the term had an “exotic, underworld dark Latin-culture feel,” Nunberg says. “That’s characteristic of subcultures; you want to have your own word.”

Even as consuming cannabis moves into the mainstream in Colorado, not everyone will agree on a common phraseology -- especially children and their parents, who’ve never agreed on much when it comes to what’s hip.

In the 1960s and 70s, the word “dope” signified hard drugs to the older generation. But it wasn’t long before the next generation decided it was time to reinvent the word and make it their own term for marijuana. “Young people used ‘dope’ to send up the old fogies, making fun of them,” Nunberg says. Nowadays, children of the 60s and 70s might still refer to the drug as “pot,” but their own children are more likely to call it “weed.”

While parents and their kids can disagree, many pot growers and sellers have pushed to adopt the term “cannabis,” the Greek word that also gave birth to the English “hemp.” They argue using a scientific term is more neutral and doesn’t carry the historical baggage of street slang. Nunberg disagrees.

“If you’re having to use a scientific term, in a funny way, you’re acknowledging you’ve got a problem,” Nunberg says. He suggests, “What you’d rather do is detoxify these terms” that are already in use. He says over the next few years, a few of the most popular words will undergo what he calls a “cleansing." By being used in everyday language, they’ll lose much of their stigma and negative connotations of the past, Nunberg says, adding that people will eventually settle on a few default terms for the drug, in the way that alcohol is referred to almost exclusively as “alcohol” or “booze” today.

So while we might all be a little too paranoid to settle on one common term for the drug right away, at least the language for pot will undergo a transformation as we start to see smoking in a new light.