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shameless pleading

Pot

Probably coined by Jack Webb.

Dear Word Detective:  From where does the name “pot” come from when referring to marijuana?  I have asked several users of the substance but they seem to have forgotten. — Barry Longyear.

Ba-dum-bump.  I feel like I’ve wandered into someone else’s act here.  But I’m afraid that in making a good joke you’re perpetuating an unfortunate stereotype of potheads as forgetful space cadets.  From what I’ve seen (from a distance, through binoculars, with Melvin the Drug Dog at my side, of course), the drug (or, as the Governator calls it, “the leaf”) actually improves its users’ memory.  They remember, for instance, how remarkably funny late-night reruns of Chuck Norris in “Walker, Texas Ranger” can be.

There’s nothing like making something illegal to spawn a wide range of slang terms for the item, and illicit drugs have spawned hundreds of such names.  Much of this slang is ephemeral and largely generational, changing through the years along with styles in hair and music.  A few core slang terms, however, persist for decades or far longer (such as “junk” for heroin and “speed” for amphetamines).  In the case of marijuana, “grass” and “pot” are the perennial standards, so widespread that major US newspapers have lately taken to using “pot” in news stories without the quotation marks that usually signal a slang term.

“Pot” as slang for marijuana has been in common usage since at least the 1930s and the subject of lively dispute among etymologists pretty much since day one.  The most popular theory about the origin of “pot” traces it to the Spanish phrase “potacion de guaya,” or “drink of grief,” supposedly referring to a concoction of wine in which marijuana buds have been steeped.  It is also said that “potiguaya” or similar words are used in Spanish to mean marijuana leaves.  The only problem with these theories is that no one has yet found “potacion de guaya” or its relatives actually being used in Spanish.  That, to put it mildly, is a pretty big problem.

None of the other theories that have been proposed for the origin of “pot” are as enticing  as that one, although the simple substitution at some point of “pot” for “pod” (meaning, presumably, the seed pods of the plant) is certainly plausible.  Unfortunately, “pod” as slang for marijuana seems to have appeared more than twenty years after “pot” did, so there’s another problem.

If I had to pick a likely candidate for the actual origin of “pot,” I’d go with one that harks back to another venerable slang term for the stuff: “tea,” referring to the similarity in appearance between dried “pot” leaves and tea leaves.  It’s easy to image someone making a pun on “teapot” (especially since “pot” is sometimes made into tea) and adopting just “pot” as slang for the drug.

6 comments to Pot

  • cptwolf

    hi,

    maybe the word pot comes from the actual pot or jar used for cannabis curing. to evenly dry and degrade chlorophyll in the buds, they are stored in pots after harvest for a few weeks up to six months.

  • john

    “The world is going to pot!”
    this was a supposed term used back in the day as a sign of bad times and no goodness, so no good pot heads may have been told: ” keep smokng that stuff and youll be goin to pot!”

  • D

    Marijuana is dried flowers. Seeing as how it arose in the 30s when using non-English terms to refer to the stuff was a common theme, could not “pot” also just be short for “potpourri”?

    It is interesting to note that even if this is the case, the “pot” part is _still_ a reference to an actual pot :)

  • BT

    In the mid 1800′s, Chinese smoked opium form vessel referred to a pot. Opium was referred to as pot smoked in opium dens.

  • Cannabis Forum

    weed use can trigger a wide range of reactions from the extremely favourable to the extremely anti, but the way I see it is that it’s like any other vice like alcohol or gambling, you have to look at how you are using it and the effect it is having on you and then take some personal responsibility, just like something like gambling some are in control of it and some aren’t, if you can’t stay in control of it then don’t do it.

  • wikireader

    According to the wikipedia article of jive slang terms, one origin might be from the “short name used for the mysterious potted plants that musicians always traveled with in 1930s and ’40s.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_jive_talk

    Marijuana users in early jazz culture seem to have given us many slang words, so this might be within the realm of plausibility, although I was unable to find supporting evidence that jazz musicians traveled regularly with potted marihuana.

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