Tomato, Tomato (What's in a name? Part 2)

The cannabis plant is old. As in 20-some-million years old. As a cultivated and domesticated plant, its history with humanity dates back millennia. As such, its various names can be traced back to the very beginnings of modern language; to the Scythian (modern-day Iran) or Thracian (southeastern Europe: primarily modern-day Bulgaria, reaching into parts of Turkey, and the extreme north part of Greece) cultures. We have archaeological evidence that these cultures had established ritual, spiritual, or medicinal uses of the cannabis plant in place, and because of that, they obviously had formalized names for it.

The culture that brought the plant to them from out of Asia and the Himalayas is not exactly known, but it is generally safe to assume that it was likely the Yamnaya people: a semi-nomadic horse culture of Eurasia and the Pontic steppes of Ukraine in the late Copper and early Bronze age (3300-2600 BCE). This culture and home area is considered by linguistic experts to be the urheimat, or “original homeland” of all modern western languages. This language—Proto-Indo-European—is the linguistic root that brought us myriad languages spanning almost all of Eurasia (west of China) ranging from Sanskrit, Turkic, Bulgarian, Greek, up to and including German, Celtic, Italic, and eventually what is now English.

This trip down memory lane may seem needlessly complex, but it illustrates something important to this discussion: we as humanity have had a formal name for this plant dating back to the very root of all Western languages, and likely even before that. In fact, there is a good chance that we have had a name for the plant for as long as we have had language itself, which supports the theory that cannabis and humankind have co-evolved throughout history; early humans found great value in this wild plant for a number of reasons and uses, and this utility begat a formal practice of cultivation, helping to move us away from a nomadic foraging life (where the utility of the plant was not at its full potential) to one of agriculture. Humanity changed proto-cannabis, nurturing and husbanding it because cannabis was nurturing and husbanding humanity.

The modern word “cannabis” that we use in English is Latin in origin. It traces its roots to the Greek κάνναβις (kánnabis), borrowed from the Persian kanab, derived from its original Scythian/Thracian origin. The Greek historian Herodotus is given the honor of being the first published writer to use the word “cannabis” in his book Histories, specifically, Book IV (Melpomene) in the section “The history of the Scythians (from the land north of the Black Sea)”. The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest post-antiquity usage of the Latin “cannabis” meaning the plant "common hemp, Cannabis sativa" as 1548. Used to mean parts of the plant "smoked, chewed, or drunk for their intoxicating or hallucinogenic properties", the OED cites that date as 1848.

It is interesting to note the preceding distinction: cannabis as “common hemp” versus cannabis as a mind-altering psychotropic. Somewhere between antiquity and the mid 16th century CE, a distinction in usage happened, most likely driving a change in terminology. And, just as both sides of that bifurcated use model can trace their roots back to one single plant species, so too can the word “hemp” trace its roots back to “cannabis”.

We'll take a dive into that with our next blog post.

Stay cool...