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

Erin Hiatt came to writing about cannabis, hemp, and psychedelics after a career as an actor and dancer. Her work has appeared in Vice, Civilized, MERRY JANE, Hemp Connoisseur Magazine, Marijuana Goes Mainstream, Doubleblind, and others.

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