Examining the Cannabis Lexicon | Marijuana

A linguist helps explain the identity behind weed words.

“Okay, it was for me. I was going to smoke the marijuana like a cigarette.”

The quote above is from the television series Arrested Development, a critically acclaimed, but short-lived comedy from the early 2000s. The episode is “Pier Pressure,” where George-Michael, played by a not-yet-famous-but-already-extremely-gifted Michael Cera, is asked by his uncle, Buster, to purchase weed for his aging girlfriend’s vertigo from his other uncle, Gob. Hilarity relentlessly ensues.

The smoking gun: George-Michael leaves a note for his Uncle Gob.

The episode is funny from beginning to end, but one moment sticks out in particular. During the climactic scene, after his father has caught him trying to purchase weed by the dock, George-Michael, in his moment of defeat, meekly mumbles “Okay, it was for me. I was going to smoke the marijuana like a cigarette.”

Why is this so funny?

This is one of the funniest, most subtle, and effortless jokes in the entire episode. But why?

Nothing is out of the ordinary when the words are read on their own. Marijuana is consumed by smoking it. One of the most popular ways to smoke it is to roll the dried buds into thin sheets of smokable paper, something that closely resembles a cigarette.

What makes the use of “marijuana” funny in this instance is the context.

Why did he say “marijuana” instead of the more common, informal “weed” or “pot?” A rolled up cannabis cigarette is called a “joint,” why doesn’t he know that? Who says “smoke the marijuana?”

It is these subtle specifics which make moments like these immortalized and give us context through language.

“Arrested Development” wasn’t the only television series to do this. “Broad City” has used cannabis language to solidify Abbi’s and Ilana’s identities since the very first episode. Titled “What a Wonderful World,” we’re first introduced to Ilana and Abbi as they skip out on their low-paying jobs to hustle up some quick cash in order to attend a secret, pop-up Lil Wayne concert.

In the middle of scheming and plotting, Ilana breaks down their essential needs. And that’s when she says “Obviously, we need an eighth.” Abbi agrees. Hilarity relentlessly ensues here, too, but, just like in “Arrested Development,” we find out more about these characters’ identities by their word choice.

We find out more about Ilana’s and Abbi’s identities.

We know that Abbi and Ilana smoke weed because they comfortably use the word “eighth,” which, as any regular cannabis consumer could tell you, is 3.5 grams, or an eighth of an ounce, of cannabis flower.

The words we use in everyday conversation not only help communicate what we’re trying to say, but also speak to who we are and how we feel.

To help us further understand the cannabis lexicon, or the vocabulary of weed words, I spoke with linguist Nicole Holliday, an assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Pomona College in Claremont, California. In our phone conversation, we discussed slang, cultural appropriation — when elements of a minority culture are adopted by members of a dominant culture — and how the words we use can describe us more than what we’re trying to describe.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

Q: You’re a linguist who studies sociolinguistics. For the uninitiated, what is ‘sociolinguistics’? How does it relate to the cannabis lexicon?

A: We are interested when groups of people people talk differently from other groups of people. We’re interested in the how and the why. Whenever there are multiple ways of saying the same thing, they have something to do with the sociology of the community.
If we’re talking about the cannabis lexicon, different people might use different words for different things. That means something. That tells you something about their relationship to the industry, maybe their age, maybe their stance about it.

Q: According to slang scholar Jonathon Green’s “Dictionary of Slang,” an online database of synonyms, there are more than 1,200 slang terms related to cannabis. What does this indicate?

A: You tend to get more slang words around things that are considered socially taboo. There’s a lot of slang words for sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, basically.
Sometimes its beneficial for speakers to use coded language or to be sort of euphemistic. If you were 21 and interested in cannabis, you’re not going to walk up to your friend and be like ‘Hey guys, lets try marijuana!’ You can’t do that because the practical meaning, what we as linguists would say the “pragmatic” meaning, of “pot,” and “marijuana,” and “weed,” are different even though we’re referring to the same plant. What they actually mean in society is different.  

Q: What does a person’s choice of word for cannabis say about them?

A: I think my interpretation of the example that I gave, the young person is clearly not in the [cannabis]community. This is not an activity that you talk about or engage in very often because you’re using the words that the government uses [marijuana]. That’s especially marked for young people because we know that young people are more linguistically innovative, they come up with more slang and more new words to use. So a 21-year-old saying, “Let’s use some marijuana,” is really different than a 50-year-old saying it.

Q: How has the age of legalization changed the way we talk about cannabis?

A: I really do think that because of legalization people are being more open-minded. There’s always been business people, politicians, and professionals of every kind that have used cannabis. But people are now feeling more emboldened to talk about it with more legalization. I think it might reduce the number of slang terms, actually, if we can talk about these things more plainly rather than in euphemism.

Q: Is the mainstream media slow to adopt relevant language? And what does it say about cannabis their attitudes toward (it)?

A: The people who are the best at keeping up with the slang are teenagers. If you’ve got a newsroom and a bunch of editors who are in their thirties, forties, and fifties, they’re just going to use the terms that they’ve always been familiar with. People for the most part stop acquiring new slang around age 30, they’re just not ever going to be able to keep up with what the kids are saying.

Q: Let’s talk about the term “marijuana” for a bit. What are its origins and meaning in linguistics? How has public opinion affected its use?

A: My understanding is that in the 20th century there were propaganda campaigns against cannabis, not just against its psychoactive [properties], but against hemp because it competed with other industries. They had this propaganda campaign against it by calling it “marijuana” instead of cannabis. You give is a Spanish or foreign name in order to make Americans afraid of it. This is why there is such a dialogue around immigration, and calling them “aliens” or “illegal.” That was basically what was going on in the early 20th century with this campaign against marijuana for economic and social reasons —  and it worked pretty well. Those old “Reefer Madness” films and all of that. They just were successful in making it this really scary thing, there’s a few generations of people, baby boomers who still think that “Reefer Madness” was a documentary [laughs].
But I think it’s not a coincidence that marijuana became the preferred term, and is the term that the government still uses. The fact that we use a Spanish term means something.

Q: To quote your Oxford Dictionaries’ blog post, when is lexical innovation cultural appropriation?

A: This is a really difficult problem. I don’t know if most people have any ideological association with the word marijuana as coming from Latin America, because the term is so widespread. And words change meaning over time.
Was it historically used for propaganda? Yeah. But is that necessarily a problem now? Do we need to stop using the word “marijuana?” I don’t know. Linguist are kind of the worst people to ask about this because, fundamentally, we are interested in being descriptive and not prescriptive. I don’t ever want to say “we should all say cannabis” or “we should all say marijuana.” Ultimately the speakers of the language are in charge of where we go and what those words mean.

As legalization spreads and weed enters mainstream media, we’ll see words, code terms, and slang come and go as the cannabis lexicon continues to evolve. And, as speakers of the language, the cannabis community will largely be responsible for that evolution.

Whether you call it “the marijuana” or “an eighth,” watch your weed words. They say more than we may think.

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