Tomato, Tomato (What's In a Name, Part III)

Hemp, and that “other” word...

In a past blog post, we talked about the word “hemp”, and how prevalent it is in American culture. Towns, waypoints, and other geographic monikers often have “hemp” in their name. But what are the actual origins of the word “hemp”? This is where things start to get both murky and convoluted in the mists of time.

In the previous blog, we traced the history of the Latin “cannabis” back to the Greek κάνναβις (kánnabis) from the Persian, Thracian, and Scythian language roots, back somewhere into Proto-Indo-Eoropean pre-history. As “cannabis” was brought into the European linguistic world with the rise of the Roman empire (as well as the growing and use of the plant itself), it split into a few different directions, possibly starting with Slavic, and then into Baltic, Finnish, and then Germanic languages.

Of note here are the two letters “k” and “b” in the Greek/Latin word “cannabis”. Those two letters are our path to the modern word “hemp”, and involves something referred to as “Grimm's Law”. Also known as the First Germanic Sound Shift (or "Rask's rule"), Grimm's Law is a set of linguistic rules named after Jacob Grimm and Rasmus Rask that set translational rules for Proto-Indo-European language sounds (phonics) as they relate to later languages that followed them. In this case, the following language—Proto-Germanic (the common ancestor of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family) in the 1st millennium BC—is the root of many European languages, including English. Following Grimm's law, the Greek/Latin hard "k" sound would have changed to "h" with the initial Germanic sound shift, and the “b” would change to a hard “p” (or sometimes “f”, or a combination thereof), making some manner of pronunciation akin to “cheam-fp”. After, it likely would have been adapted into the Old English form, hænep: morphing its way through the many Germanic languages—Old Norse/Dutch/Saxon/German, etc—into the Old High German, Old English, Middle, then the English form “hemp” we know today.

So, “hemp” as we know it today can trace its existence back to the mother word “cannabis”, just as the actual hemp plant can trace its genetics back to cannabis as well. This inter-relational aspect can't go unnoticed: the linguistic differences and similarities mirror the botanical.

That “other” word...

To most people, “cannabis” and “hemp” bring to mind the same thing. It's another word that is more prevalent in modern American language, but comes with a LOT of cultural baggage: marijuana.

The word “marijuana” itself is actually a modern word, with rather spurious origins. Most likely it comes from the Nahuatl (aka “Aztec”) language family of what is now Mexico that can trace its beginnings to about 600 CE. Note the date: the language family is roughly only 1300 years old, not thousands as for cannabis/hemp. But interestingly, there was no actual indigenous word for cannabis/hemp in the Nahuatl/Aztec language. Why? How can that be, you ask? What did they call that plant?

They didn't call it anything, because they didn't have access or exposure to it until after the Spanish arrived in the late 15th and early 16th Century CE. With Spanish contact and colonization came livestock (horses, cattle, swine), as well as European agriculture (wheat, rye, and barley). That period in history, traditionally referred to as “The Colombian Exchange”, also saw the Spanish bring hemp seed.

Beginning in 1545, Spanish hemp was being grown in Chile near what is now Santiago in order to make sailcloth, ships rigging, and rope for the Spanish conquistadorial military forces and their colonists. As time went on, and the occupation and colonization of the Americas spread, so too did hemp, which arrived in Mexico proper with Pedro Cuadrado, a conquistador in Cortes’s army, during his second expedition to Mexico.

But while the Spanish may have introduced the plant hemp to the Mexican landscape, their term for it—cáñamo—seems to not have influenced the term “marijuana”, and is more closely related to the Latin “cannabis”. So where did “marijuana” come from?

As Spanish hemp began to spread from South and Central America northward to Mexico, something happened to it, quite literally. As we know, hemp doesn't have much of a psychoactive effect. The chicken-and-egg aspect of “Did psychoactive cannabis lead to non-psychoactive hemp?” or vice versa is still up in the air, but botanists are starting to lean in favor of the former. It's quite likely that proto-cannabis first developed psychotropic qualities as it grew on the ancient high Tibetan plateaus, being exposed to harsh arid conditions, and high amounts of UV radiation (more on that in a future blog). As the steppe-riders brought it down to the lower elevations of Eurasia and then Europe, the environmental changes reduced the “drug” qualities of the plant, but preserved—and at times enhanced—the agricultural utility of the plant. In essence, cannabis turned into hemp as its elevation lowered -via- human migration out of its dry, high mountain habitat.

So what then happens when Europeans take hemp seed and start to grow it in a more similar environment (dry, hot, and lots of UV solar radiation at high altitude) to its psychotropic ancestor?

Remember Pedro Cuadrado above? The Conquistador who brought hemp to Mexico? Well, he very quickly decided that being a conquistador wasn't all that it was cracked up to be, and decided to be a hemp tycoon instead, building hemp plantations with a business partner, and selling rope, seed, and other hemp supplies to the Spanish occupational forces. But rather quickly, some very interesting things began to happen that changed the landscape, and the language. It seemed that the native field-workers discovered something else to do with hemp other than make cloth, rope, and meal, and by 1550, the Spanish Governor limited the total amount of hemp allowed to be produced, because the workers were using it as an intoxicant, supposedly getting very little work done (and likely becoming more upset by being exploited as well). Inexplicably, European hemp had turned back into psychotropic cannabis on its own in less than a decade after having been re-introduced into an optimal growing environment!

But that still doesn't explain the word “marijuana”. Unfortunately, this is where things get a bit ugly.

As time went on in the New World, and hemp reverted (or progressed, depending on your botanical point of view) to a psychotropic plant, it was warmly embraced by many indigenous peoples and tribes of the Americas. While not the drug variety we're all familiar with today, it was a plant somewhere between hemp and cannabis: mostly fiber, mostly CBD (cannabidiol), but if you consumed enough, it acted as a euphoriant, depressant, or stimulant (or combination). And also as time went on, most colonial powers—including the newly minted United States of America—all set sights on Latin America as a source of cheap resources, land, and labor.

By the turn of the 19th Century (as colonial powers are wont to do) social spin was put on indigenous people to make them seem less than their white overlords. The Mexican population was branded as “lazy”, and that laziness was quickly blamed on their use of “marihuana”, a word used by Spanish speaking Mexicans, possibly derived from the Nahuatl/Aztec word mallihuan, meaning “prisoner”.* This may be a reference to those indigenous people held captive by colonial powers who learned to use this plant (that often grew beside tobacco) in smoking blends, finding that it eased the suffering of their bondage and exploitation. *(An aside: This theory is often brought into question, and while still widely touted, is now also often challenged for the lack of linguistic evidence).

By the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), a great deal of Mexican immigration into America was under way, as Mexicans fled the violence and hardship of northern Mexican border towns into the newly prosperous United States. This diaspora brought its use of cannabis-hemp with them, and soon, with anti-immigrant sentiments running high, their use begat a slander campaign against Mexican-Americans that was only amplified in the early 20th Century by Harry J. Anslinger of the newly created U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Anslinger did everything in his power to whip up furor and fears about “crazed, murderous Mexicans and their demon-weed, marihuana” and frankly, the propaganda worked for the most part (and one could easily state that we are still suffering from it today).

As such, most conscientious hemp and CBD advocates (not even including medical/recreational cannabis advocates) stay well away or totally avoid use of the term “marijuana” because of this ugly, racist history.

So again, words and names carry within them great meaning. The illustrate history. Context. Nuance. Subtlety and overtness. They can demonstrate both universality and bigotry. In our final installment, we'll discuss why the word you chooses when discussing this plant in any of its various forms matters.

Stay Cool...