What’s in a (weed) word?

Katie Thorburn gets you up to speed with all the lingo you need to survive your next ‘sesh’.

Artwork by Brendan O'Shea Artwork by Brendan O'Shea

Drugs are complex business: you need to know your science if you want to produce them, know your economics if you want to sell them, and know your sociology to figure out why anyone even bothers with it all in the first place. But perhaps no facet of the trade is as complex or overwhelming for first timers as the words used to pick out drug-related phenomena. Too often the humble act of getting high descends into a jargonistic barrage, as new terms like ‘gato’ and ‘kief’  are introduced alongside radical revisions to the mainstream usage of terms like ‘billy’ and ‘cone’. So if you’re one of the undergrads engaging in the time honoured tradition of ‘experimentation’, then read carefully if you want to sort the weed from the choof.

It’s no coincidence that cannabis vernacular is so verbose. For most of the 20th and 21st century cannabis usage has been driven to the underground by the criminal justice system and by the court of public opinion. This has necessitated the development of a lingua franca that manages to both provide reference and avoid giving referents away to people who may have qualms with the activity implied by it. As part of this process, words from other languages have frequently been (mal)appropriated. With increasing police surveillance powers and abilities, as well as the growth in internet drug commerce, this need has never been more pressing. But it’s not all structural dynamics—stoners will be the first to admit they’re a creative and humorous lot; coining new terms for things is a regular feature of the pastime. And with so much media dealing with drugs, pop culture has done its bit to expand these terms to new audiences while social media has accelerated the rate at which new terms are adopted into subcultures across the world.

Despite earnest attempts at crypticism, some words have an intuitive etymology. Cannabis is a plant, is green, and often gets ‘chopped’ into granular pieces. As such terms like ‘weed’, ‘grass’, ‘broccoli’, ‘lettuce’, ‘green’, ‘chop’, and the like follow simply enough. Moreover, when the plant flowers it grows compact knob-like ‘buds’ (hence the term), and—as any aficionado will tell you—one should inspect their product to ensure there is a high ratio of these ‘nugs/nuggets’ to leaf. ‘Gunja’, a term often used by Indigenous communities in Australia, is often mistakenly attributed to Jamaica. It is however a close relative of the term ‘ganja’, itself borrowed from the Sanskrit word for the drug via Bengali and Hindi. Similarly, the term ‘pot’ is allegedly a shortened version of the Spanish potiguaya, a wine in which buds would be seeped.

Adjectives have also been added to these planty descriptors to express the effect of consumption, such as ‘giggle lettuce’ or ‘wacky-tabacky’. Some of these terms have been reclaimed by stoners after having entered the lexicon via conservatives, for instance ‘devil’s lettuce’ and ‘Satan’s spinach’. Some have since been affectionately claimed by the smoking community, however, who ironically use it to describe their beloved practice. And the phenomenon of making light of the stigmatisation and punitive approach to weed is not limited to the english language or the western world. The term for getting ‘high’ in Arabic is ‘zina’—to get stoned.

Perhaps the most auspicious example of the intersection between politicisation and term usage though can be seen in the word ‘marijuana’ itself, however. The term began to be used by the US government during the ‘war on drugs’ in an attempt to frame the drug as a problem associated with Latin America, no doubt playing to America’s racist underbelly in the process. In a move that roughly inverts this, some terms that once referred to weed now mean something more hardcore—don’t go asking for ‘dope’ if you’ve recently read a Thomas Pynchon novel!

So now that you know what to call your desired product when you post on Vegetables Australia the next step is working out how you want to make use of it. These days there are lots of options. The ‘joint’ is by far the most romantic way to consume, and though like many terms originating in the underground its etymology is blurry, the first use of the word in this context appeared in a 1938 New Yorker article detailing this concerning new trend among Harlem’s hippest. These days though, the term ‘joint’ isn’t all that hip. If you want to be especially cool you could call it a ‘jazz cigarette’, a term originating in the 1920s Jazz era by singers and trumpeters. Some especially trendy circles have been known to use the term ‘spicy durry’ as well. Other common terms include ‘doob’, for which there is no known history, a ‘zoot’, which is largely used in the United Kingdom (again with little background on why), and a ‘spliff’, although that term normally only refers to joints that are ‘spun’ (have tobacco added in). In Western Australia (and, according to folklore, Newcastle) one might ‘have a choff’.

At the end of a joint is a ‘filter’, normally called a ‘roach’. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson offers one explanation for the term, describing how a police instructor at a seminar noted the physical similarities between a joint and a cockroach (a weird comparison that led some to wonder whether the instructor was in fact high). Another explanation offered by an alleged old Hippie on a forum somewhere was that used filters were often stored in matchboxes throughout the 60s, attracting the hurried to-and-froing of nature’s garbage cleaners. When a joint is nearing the end of its life it gets hotter and harsher, so a group will normally issue an open invitation for someone especially desperate to ‘lick the spoon’ or smoke the ‘stinging Roger’. The origins of both are sadly lost to the stoner memory hole.

No way of consuming marijuana is as cool, or as archetypically Australian, as consuming it via a ‘bong’. A bong is a seemingly elaborate water pipe, that uses a combination of deadhead physics and metaphysical mystery to convert plant matter to smoke before bringing it into your lungs fast and not quite as temperate as you’d hoped. The term was allegedly introduced to the American Hippie / pro-drug movement in the 60s via Vietnam War veterans, who had heard the term ‘baung’ used to refer to the same thing in the Thai language.

Perhaps no object has more synonyms or related terminology than the ‘bong’ though, and stoners often compete to see who has the funnier / more creative label. Some call it a ‘billy’, noting its similarity to the traditional camping device used by a swagman. Others call it a ‘buge’ (short for bugel), noting that the embouchure required to properly inhale the product is similar to that required to play the Last Post. More modern variations of that formula see the ‘bong’ called a ‘plastic saxophone’ and / or ‘glass clarinet’, depending on the material involved.

What’s more important than calling a bong the right thing is smoking it the right way. ‘Ripping cones’ is a uniquely Australian method, where one attempts to inhale the entirety of the plant matter contained within the cone piece (or ‘cone’) in a single breath. That it is often alternately referred to as ‘punching cones’ does nothing to dampen the rather masculine imagery associated with this methodology. In countries with a larger market, like the US, hitting ‘dabs’ is more common, where one uses a specially designed bong to inhale cannabis in a purified, resinous wax / oil form.

And when to get blazed / light up? Why, 4.20 of course! (PM if you’re a normie, AM if you’re hardcore). And while it’s easy to appreciate the funniest string of numerals in the set of real numbers nowadays, it was not always so well known. Legend has it that the term emerged from the ritualistic daily seshing of students at a Californian high school in the 70s, at that exact time.

Whatever you call it and how/whenever you do it, make sure to know your limits. Consuming too much may result in your ‘greening out’, so called because one’s outward green appearance betrays a commensurately nauseous, dizzy, and tired feeling on the inside.

So there you have it, a (partial) guide to navigating the politics and humorous intricacies of weed smoking. Now feel free to get stoned without fear of faux pas, though if you want another rabbit hole to direct your paranoia towards then the question of the origins of the word ‘stoned’ is still a live area of research. Better get smoking!