Name Game

Is it time to discontinue use of the word 'marijuana'?

I happen to own an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, which might be a cumbersome thing but for the fact that it's a compact version printed with four reduced original pages per page. Even with that, the 1933 dictionary is more than 4,000 pages, and I have always considered it a definitive source on English.

When I wanted to narrow down the nuances among the various names for medical marijuana, old-school Oxford came up short. The Oxford University Press had neither cannabis nor marijuana in the 1933 text. The closest Oxford came then was cannabic, defined as "of the nature of hemp," though there are references from 1731 to cannabin's "powerful intoxicating effect" and the use of Cannabis indica in the East as an "intoxicating agent."

Dianna Moffitt, whose medical marijuana was intimidated out of her purse by Border Patrol agents, raised the what-should-we-call-it issue from my subconscious. (See "Border Disorder," Dec. 29.) She thinks we should stop using the word marijuana, because it's a cultural construct. She prefers cannabis, because it's scientific and less culturally sensitive. It made me stop and think about what we call retarded people.

Did you feel that instant gut reaction just now? The one that makes you squirm a little when I said retarded? That's Dianna's point about marijuana. So, perhaps showing my age, I decided to open actual books from the past century to find out how we have defined cannabis and/or marijuana over the years.

The origin of the word marijuana or marihuana or marajuana is widely accepted as Spanish, although no one appears to know for sure exactly why. Some say it's derived from the names Maria and Juan. It dates back at least to the 19th century. The word came into popular use in the United States in the 1930s—some say to make cannabis sound foreign and, thus, bad, at a time when Reefer Madness and William Randolph Hearst were trying respectively to protect America from psychotic dope fiends and competition from hemp-growers.

Marijuana (in any spelling) doesn't appear in the 1910 Peabody's Webster's Dictionary or the 1936 New Century Dictionary, but a 1936 Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defined marijuana as hemp and its leaves and flowers, "which are smoked in cigarettes."

By 1954, Random House called marijuana simply a "narcotic drug" in the American Vest Pocket Dictionary. In 1954, Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary said marihuana was hemp, which is "used in cigarettes with grave toxic affects on the nervous system." In 1966, Webster's Third New International Dictionary called marijuana simply "a wild tobacco, or hemp, which can be smoked to produce peculiar psychic disturbances."

Cannabis and/or cannabin draw a similarly wide variety of definitions. Up through the 1950s, it was often called the "poisonous resin" of the hemp plant.

When you Google cannabis definition, you get "a plant ... used to produce hemp fiber and as a mildly psychotropic drug." When I came full circle to the modern Oxford University Press (, I found cannabis defined as "a tall plant with a stiff upright stem, divided serrated leaves, and glandular hairs. It is used to produce hemp fibre and as a psychotropic drug."

It's interesting that Oxford, which in 1933 called cannabin the "poisonous resin of the extract of Indian hemp," is now calling cannabis a "psychotropic drug," putting it scientifically on common ground with such startlingly effective drugs as Risperdal (which is keeping Jared Loughner from wanting to shoot more people) and Lexapro (which is keeping millions of people from wanting to shoot themselves).

It seems to me that what we call marijuana or cannabis or hemp is less important than what we think about it—and whether we try to view it fairly and let folks decide for themselves how to use it. In the end, it probably doesn't matter what you call your MMJ. Whatever you call it is likely to change again in your lifetime—the same way idiots, imbeciles and morons became retarded people, who then became mentally disabled.

Er, I mean challenged.

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