What’s The Right Term For Marijuana? Answers To Your Questions About Legal Weed

Slang terms for marijuana - final
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
Slang terms for marijuana - final
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

What’s The Right Term For Marijuana? Answers To Your Questions About Legal Weed

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You know this already: Legal weed is coming to Illinois and that comes with a lot of questions— everything from: “Can I get a DUI?” to “When can I buy a joint?” to What’s the proper terminology for the drug?”

WBEZ listener and reader Susan Okimoto asked us that last one. Here’s what she said sparked her curiosity: “I just heard news organizations calling it weed and I was wondering what the proper term for it is. Weed almost sounds like you’re high when you’re smoking it. Cannabis sounds too medical and marijuana sounds too stiff.”

So we asked a linguist at the University of Chicago, Jason Riggle, and a historian at the University of Cincinnati, Isaac Campos, to help us dig through some of the drug’s nicknames. It turns out there are plenty (check out this list of nearly 300 marijuana slang terms compiled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration), but we’ve narrowed it down to five for the purposes of our own sanity.

(P.S. You can submit your questions about legal weed here.)


Definition (Webster’s New World College Dictionary): 1. hemp; 2. its dried leaves and flowers, smoked, esp. in the form of cigarettes, for euphoric effects

U.S. origin: Starts to show up in U.S. newspapers in the 1890s from Mexico through the transnational press

Backstory: Marijuana, or marihuana, was the word used to describe the drug in Mexico dating back to the 1840s. It was popularized in the United States at the turn of the century, when U.S. newspapers started to publish English-language articles from Mexico, largely about crimes committed by people high on the drug. Marijuana had a “wicked reputation” in Mexico long before it did in the U.S., according to Campos, because it was associated with lower class Mexicans like soldiers or prisoners.

Should I use the term? Some avoid the word because of the argument that it was popularized in the United States to stoke anti-Mexican sentiment. But Campos argues avoiding the word erases the influence Mexican immigrants had on U.S. culture. He said the term became popular because of Mexican influence on U.S. culture, not because of a conspiracy to demonize Mexican immigrants.


Definition: 1. Hemp; 2. Marijuana or any other substance derived from the flowering tops of the hemp plant.

U.S. origin: Established in the 1700s as the scientific name of the hemp plant, from which marijuana is derived

Backstory: This is the word that Illinois lawmakers decided to use in the 600+ page law legalizing recreational marijuana and the state law legalizing medical marijuana in 2013. A lead sponsor of the recreational cannabis bill said lawmakers were uncomfortable using the word marijuana, and wanted to stick to the scientific name because of the plant’s controversial history. Several dispensaries and industry groups have also shifted toward using the word cannabis as opposed to marijuana or pot, some say to emphasize the drug’s medicinal benefits.

Should I use the term? This is the preferred term of some industry folks and lawmakers.


Definition: 1. A round vessel of any size, made of metal, earthenware, or glass, used for holding liquids, cooking or preserving food: 2. a pot with its contents; 3. potful; 4. a pot of liquor; drink; potation; 5. short for flowerpot, lobster pot, chimney pot, etc.; 6. a) chamber pot b) a toilet; 7. a) Poker, etc. all the money bet at a single time …

U.S. origin: Starts being used as a term for marijuana in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century; starts to take off culturally in the 1960s.

Backstory: There’s a popular theory that the word was abbreviated from the Spanish expression potación de guaya, or potion of grief, which was supposedly a glass of wine or brandy mixed with marijuana in the early 20th century, according to Riggle, though he says there’s really no evidence to prove this origin of the word pot as it’s used today. He said it also could refer to a tea pot — referencing early usages of marijuana-infused tea, though there’s little evidence to support that either.

“Basically the answer is we have no idea, so I want to call pot a mystery,” Riggle said.

Should I use the term? This seems to be a generational preference. People we spoke to agree that, at least anecdotally, it’s used more by Generation X, as opposed to young millennials or Generation Z. That’s in part supported by data from Google Books that show the use of “smoking pot” in U.S. literature starts to decline in the first decade of the 21st century.


Definition: 1. any undesired, uncultivated plant, esp. one growing in profusion so as to crowd out a desired crop, disfigure a lawn, etc.; 2. [Informal] a) tobacco b) a cigar or cigarette c) marijuana; 3. something useless; specif., a horse that is unfit for racing or breeding

U.S. origin: Starts to show up as a term for marijuana in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, but used as a term for an undesirable plant as far back as the 1400s, and as a term for tobacco dating back to the 1600s.

Backstory: The term could be a shortened version of the word “locoweed,” a species of plant that grows in southwest and northern Mexico, according to historian Campos. It was often eaten by cattle or horses but had terrible effects on them. This word was sometimes used interchangeably with marijuana in late 19th century Mexico, so when stories about marijuana started to make their way to the U.S. the two plants got conflated. There’s a California bill from 1913 that aimed to criminalize the cultivation of marijuana that referred to the drug as “locoweed,” according to Riggle.

Should I use the term? Like pot, it seems to be a generational preference, this time used among young millennials as opposed to Gen Z. The use of the term “smoking weed” started to spike in U.S. literature in the first decade of the 21st century, while “smoking marijuana” and “smoking pot” started to decline.


Definition: 1. lasting a long time or recurring often; 2. having had an ailment for a long time [a chronic patient]; 3. continuing indefinitely, perpetual, constant [a chronic worry]; 4. by habit, custom, etc.; habitual; inveterate [a chronic complainer]

U.S. origin: Almost certainly popularized as a term for marijuana by the 1992 album The Chronic by Dr. Dre

Backstory: It’s unclear whether Dr. Dre’s album popularized a term that was already being used or if the album itself innovated that term, but Riggle says it’s difficult to find it being used in media or literature much before 1992. The term is associated with habitual use of potent marijuana (get it? chronic?).

Should I use the term? Some South and West side organizers in Chicago who are helping folks get into the industry say they’re using the word as a way to connect to people harmed by the war on drugs. The economic justice group Equity and Transformation is holding a series of workshops called “Chronic Conversations.”

“Some people kind of have an idea what cannabis is,” said Richard Wallace of Equity and Transformation. “But it still doesn’t speak directly to them … the word “chronic” is a great way to highlight and center the voice of our community within the discussion around cannabis.”

If the information above doesn’t change your mind about what you’ll call the drug, linguist Jason Riggle says that might just be because of your age.

“Whatever the slang was when you were in your late teens, early twenties — that’s likely going to be the slang you use for the rest of your life, aside from a few additions here and there,” he said.

But he also had a caution: Pay attention to the words major players in this new industry are using — especially if they’re choosing new words, rather than the phrases used by groups who have been most affected by the criminalization of pot.

As for news organizations, our question asker might be onto something. The Associated Press Stylebook provides these guidelines: “Use marijuana on first reference generally; pot and cannabis are also acceptable. Cannabis is the usual term outside North America. Slang terms such as weed, reefer, ganja or 420 are acceptable in limited, colloquial cases or in quotations.”

Portrait of Susan Okimoto
Courtesy of Susan Okimoto

About our question asker: Susan Okimoto lives in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood with her husband and kids. She said, jokingly, she’ll draw from the expansive list of slang terms from the Drug Enforcement Administration to describe marijuana going forward.

Mariah Woelfel is a producer at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel. Illustrations are by WBEZ’s interactive producer Paula Friedrich. You can follow her on Twitter @pauliebe. This story was produced for broadcast by WBEZ’s Alyssa Edes. You can follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.