Monday, January 10, 2011

Going to Pot


Everyone who has an opinion on the matter seems to agree that the word pot, meaning “marijuana,” has its origin in the Mexican-Spanish word potiguaya, an abbreviated form of potación de guaya (“drink of grief”), a wine or brandy in which marijuana buds have been steeped.  John Sutherland in his Curiosities of Literature tries vainly to make a case for pot’s origin in Lord Dunsany’s “The Hashish Man,” in which the smoking of hashish is described as partaking in the “pot of dreams.”

But what about the word marijuana?  Where does it come from?  It’s a lot harder to pin down.  Alan Piper has done a lengthy, scholarly piece—“The Mysterious Origins of the Word Marihuana”—which appeared in the Sino-Platonic Papers of July 2005.  Piper says the earliest appearance in an English publication of a similar word referring to a hallucinogenic plant (mariguan) was in 1894 in Scribner’s Magazine. Punch Magazine mentioned marijuma in 1905. Piper speculates that it might have originated in the Chinese words for “cannabis flower seeds”—ma-ren-hua—which were brought to Mexico by Chinese laborers as early as the seventeenth century.

But there’s also a connection with the Middle Latin word maioriana, or “marjoram,” which was thrown on the fire and its smoke inhaled as an intoxicant in ancient Thrace.  And there’s a word—mariguanza—in Chilean Spanish that means a leap in a dance by a shaman casting a spell, which might be descriptive of the behavior of a cannabis user.  Further, there is speculation that the word derives from a conflation with the name Maria Juana—with an allusion to the Virgin Mary, to whom Mexican folklore attributes the mystical powers of certain herbs.

Other linguists cite the Brazilian Portuguese term maraguango, meaning “smoking, drinking, or snuffing any substance” that alters mental capacity.  There may also be a connection to the Arabic word murr, meaning bitter aromatic herb, as found in myrrh, which one of the Magi was toting.

In his conclusion, Piper is forced to admit the word marijuana may be a nineteenth-century folk term with no discernible etymology.

Under the misapprehension that pot was short for potato, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou became extremely ill smoking dried potato peelings, under the influence of which he composed these lines:
           
            Perhaps I might enjoy a joint,
            But all to no avail.
            For I would fail to get the point,
            And I would not inhale.
            ‘Cause if I puffed a tiny spliff
            Of wacky old tobacky,
            All it would take is just one sniff
            And I’d do something tacky.

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