The Ecphorizer

Deeper Into Hemp
E. E. Rehmus

Issue #42 (February 1985)

An etymological investigation of a very old sociological phenomenon

Although I wrote these observations nearly two decades ago, I ran into unexpected snags getting them published in the usual places. The reason, I believe, is that social habits with a long history behind them tend to seem more respectable than those without them. Solid periodicals didn't

To begin with, it might interest you to know that 'hashish' is merely the Arabic word for 'grass.'

want such things made respectable. On the other hand, the counterculture's media didn't [quoteright]seem interested either, since history, no matter how speculative or fanciful, smacked of the then-hated academic establishment. Perhaps now that the marijuana controversy has changed its focus from the user to the big-time grower, and the fashionable narcotics market has switched to cocaine, the lowly weed may finally bear scrutiny.

For many years we had been conditioned to believe that marijuana-smoking was a rare and isolated practice, sanctioned only by petty criminals and jazz musicians. Rare and unknown things are rather typically associated with evil, but the fact is that cannabis had always been ubiquitous, and it was not until the enlightened 20th century that it suddenly found itself draped in mystery. We can thank U.S. Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger for that. In the early 1930s, when he noted that Prohibition was on the way out and his job as head of its enforcement soon to be terminated, he scrambled to nominate narcotics for the procrustean bed now left vacant by alcohol. By the time the hippies rediscovered it thirty years later, marijuana was well established as an exotic.

A comparison of the word "hemp" throughout the world will show cannabis to be a universal cultural phenomenon of estimable and ancient lineage. It is said that even George Washington grew hemp-although we are led to believe that its use was restricted in those days to the manufacture of rope. Popular, low-level media, though, revel in a good deal of frankness. It's ironic that when Anslinger was pushing obscurantistic articles in the Reader's Digest he quite overlooked the comic strips. In those days it was a convention to designate cheap cigars as El Ropo brand.

Just as, according to the hippies, the smoking of cannabis seems to erase social barriers, so the very word itself appears to have leapt remarkable distances over what might otherwise seem insuperable linguistic boundaries. Professional linguists, therefore, are invited to put the following comparisons in their pipes and smoke them. It will be seen that "grass," "reed," "hemp," and even "flax" and "linen" have more than botany in common. Moreover, it would be reasonable to assume that "grass" and "weed" are relatively new slang for marijuana, but they are as old as Enoch.

Of course we are all by now thoroughly weary of the legend of the murderous "hashishins" or assassins. That dreary tale was, of course, the source of Anslinger's brilliant nickname "the killer weed." To begin with, it might interest you to know that "hashish" is merely the Arabic word for "grass" - exotic perhaps in its own right, since ordinary grass hardly grows as readily in Arabia as it does in our temperate lawns. "Hashish," However, is not a universal root-word, even though Modern Hebrew has borrowed its word chashish from the Arabs to mean "marijuana," just as we have. Only in Japanese do we find perhaps a faint echo of this in the words ashi, "reed, rush," and asi, "hemp or flax." This does not necessarily mean that the Japanese borrowed the word from the Arabs, or vice versa, but neither should we jump to the conclusion that it must be a coincidence - hemp is too widespread for such accidents.

There are apparently but two universal roots, the first of which may be assumed from the following similarities (juxtaposed deliberately, not entirely to provoke or insult conventional language classifiers but also to suggest new perspectives for them):

LIINA                            Finnish                  (flax)
LIN                                Anglo-Saxon        (flax --> linnet: a bird that feeds on flax or hemp-seeds)
LINUM                          Latin                      (flax --> linen)
LIN                                OLD NORSE        (cannabis)
LINU                             Basque                  (flax)
MADULI                       Luganda               (hemp-seed) pl. of 'ddu-ll
OLDS                            Mongol                 (hemp)
WAP(WALLO)PEN    Algonquin             ("white-hemp-at")

But more prevalent by far is H-M-P:

H                                Egyptian                (the hieroglyph for this phonetic is a knotted rope)
NEHEM                    Egyptian                (a flower-bud)
HEMP                       English
HAMPR                    Icelandic                (hemp)
-AMBA                      Chichewa               --an African language (hemp)
LIAMBA                    Brazilian                 (a combination of both elements, LI and ?-M-B)
HANF                        German                   (hemp)
KANNI                       Kannada                --Dravidian language (rope, fire)
CANA (or SANA)    Sanskrit                   (giving ultimately English "cane" as in sugar-cane)
KENDER                  Hungarian              (hemp)
GANEP                     Armenian                (hemp)
KANNABIS               Greek/Latin
QANABOS               Hebrew
QANABAH               Quiche-Mayan       (the color of dried grass)
KANAPES                Lithuanian
KONOP                    Bulgarian/Polish    (Russian: KONOPLYA)
CANNABACEUS    Vulgar Latin            (hempen --> O.Fr. CHENEVAZ,
CHINEPA                 Moldavian
CHENG                    Chinese                   (twigs of hemp)

To these we may append K-B forms as well, thus:

KIBINDI                  Luganda                    (bhang, pipe)
KEFYON, KIF ?    Cornish                       (?)
KIF                          Morocco, Algieria     <-- Arabic: KAIF, "good humor"
KUPU                     Assyrian                    (reed, rush)
KABAK                   Turkish                       (hemp)
CARBE                   Provençal                  (hemp)

To the K-N-P, K-N-B prototype (such as Lith. KANAPES, above) we may compare a few reversed forms, P-N-K or B-N-K such as:


PANAKES            Greek            (hemp: according to John Allegro in "The Sacred                             Mushroom & the Cross")
? PANACEA        Greek            (a cure-all <-- perhaps "folk etymology?")
? PANA                Hebrew          (to indulge)
PAAN                   Siamese        (hemp; ramie)
BHANGA             Sanskrit          (hashish)
BANGI                  Swahili           (bhang, leaf of bhang)
MBANGI               Swahili           (hemp)
GI                          Sumerian       (reed)

Which brings us back around to the front of the word again:

GAN-FP        Armenian
GAN              Sumerian       (narcotic mushroom top)
GANJA          Hindu             (hashish)
'NJAAYE       Lugànda        (bhang) cf. C.African: DJOMA, "aphrodisiacal bark or herb")

And now we see the vague beginnings of a 3rd root starting to creep in:

MA-JANI                     Swahili                  (grass)
MA*                              Mandarin              (hemp)
MAA*_ SI VET            Cupeno Indian    (grass)
MARA*-GUANGO      Old Mexican

I doubt that "cinnamon" (Hebrew QUINNAMON) has any connection, but I have heard Mexicans refer to better quality marijuana as canela which means "cinnamon" or "exquisite" in Spanish. Whether it is but street metaphor or whether it somehow bears a distant relationship to the original root would be hard to say, since the single-minded function of collectively unconscious folk etymology is precisely to obscure history by making alien words sound indigenous.

Although the physical resemblance of canvas to mosquito-netting may not seem far-fetched to one who has puffed a couple of joints, I think we can also forget about "canape" or "canopy" as relatives. "Canopy" is from Greek-kanopeion, "a bed with mosquito netting," from konops, "mosquito," (apparently no relation to konoplia and the like), for konops is simply the mosquito's shape: a cone. So any imaginative picture conjured by a modern pot-smoker of partaking cannabis canapes under a canopy is not linguistically warranted.

Nor is "calumet," the Amerindian peace-pipe, connected in any philological way. There are those who persist in suggesting that the origin of this word is Algonquin: calu, "pipe" + met, "meeting or gathering." But 17th century lexicographers were not trustworthy. They had a regrettable tendency to ask a native for his word for "moon," say, and when the native repeated the sound "mu-un" the lexicographer would record that as the Indian word! It seems far more sensible to derive the true history of this word simply from scholarly Latin: calamus, "reed." All literate people in those days knew Latin and most explorers were members of the well-educated upper classes.

Marijuana, the purchase of which was at one time a rather laborious process, is a word whose etymology is still laborious. The same precautions masking its cultivation and sale appear by some paranoid alchemy to have taken over its history as well.

We can early dispense with the notion that it is simply the name MARIA JUANA, or Mary Jane, called after some mythical ancient witch, since this is clearly a recently derivative form. Some say that "marijuana" derives from an anagram (by analogy?) of CANAMO, the Spanish word for "hemp." CANA, in turn, is the Arabic gana- (reed) derived ultimately, like the Sanskrit, from Assyrian kane, "reed, rush."

Another theory is that the second element derives from iguana <-- Arawak: IWANA, which is an edible food to those people. MAR-IGUANA might then be "sea-iguana" or "bitter-iguana." There is also the wild "amargo" (bitter) to consider. But it strikes me that the Swahili word: MAJANI (like Arabic "hashish") most literally means "grass" and MARI-JUANA and MA-JANI, although geographically an ocean apart, are too close for semantic comfort - as, by the way, is the Dravidian (Tulu) word MURAJE (lit. "a rope made of straw"), even though we are now a full two continents away! We must also compare the Aztec, or Nahuati, word for "grass": MALLINALLI, which in swallowing the R’s seems to incorporate MA, MAR roots with that less common root, LINU/ULI.

MARAGUANGO* is the oldest form we can find for "marijuana." In the 19th century it was described in at least one old dictionary, I've forgotten which, as "a means by which Mexican women wreaked vengeance on their lovers." And surely that is an important clue, even though some clues shed little light. GUANGO, however, is also oddly similar to the Hindu word: GANJA - again halfway round the globe. Finally, we should not overlook that among the GUARANI Indians of South America -guaña is a suffix meaning "causing sickness" (e.g., IPECAC from IPE-KAAGUANA). An overindulgence in marijuana frequently induces nausea and vomiting. Indeed, brief and moderate vomiting is actually encouraged in some quarters as a means of heightening the psychedelic effects.

From all this we can conclude at least that the use of marijuana is far from a recent or eccentric fad. So universal is its usage, in fact, that I will go so far as to challenge the reader to produce, in any language, a legitimate word for this substance (discounting, of course, all purely local slang such as "pot," "boo," "reefer," etc.) that is truly isolated from the universal roots. 

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