As a plant of undeniable value to every culture that has encountered it, it is not surprising that local names for cannabis have arisen in many of the areas that its use has become established. With some of these names, it is possible to chart the spread of cannabis throughout the world.
Etymology Of The Word “Cannabis”
It is postulated that a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word root for cannabis gave us many of our modern cognates, including cannabis itself. The word root is thought to be *kan(n)aB-; *B represents a *p or *b bilabial stop consonant (made by pressing the lips together to block the passage of air; p and b being the most common sounds), which as languages have evolved over the centuries has given us a range of cognates for cannabis and hemp including the Czech konopí, the Hebrew qannabbôs, and the English cannabis.
There is still some debate regarding the etymological lineages of some modern names for cannabis and hemp; for example, it is not clear whether the Hebrew qannabbôs (and its possible precursor kanbos) are derived from the ancient Greek kannabis or vice versa. Undoubtedly, we derive the modern word cannabis directly from the Latin cannabis, which is in turn derived directly from the Greek.
It is thought that the Greek kannabis (the earliest recorded term for the plant) was a direct transliteration of an identical Scythian or Thracian cognate, which may in turn have evolved from the Proto-Germanic *hanapiz, a compound of Finno-Ugric *kéne (hemp) and *piš (to burn; nettle), although this is merely a hypothesis. Another holds that the etymology runs thus: Greek kannabis < Arabic kunnab < Syriac qunnappa < Hebrew qaneh or pannag (= bhanga in Sanskrit and bang in Persian).
Etymology Of The Word “Hemp”
Much controversy surrounds the precise etymology of many modern words, due to the complex interactions between disparate populations over the last few thousand years, which in some cases have led to words being loaned back and forth until their exact origins have become obscured. It is certainly difficult to trace the etymology of hemp and cannabis, as their uses are so varied and abundant that separate but related words have found their way into many languages, to describe slightly different uses or forms of the plant. However, it is believed that the two words ultimately derive from the same PIE root.
The modern word hemp, as well as the Dutch word hennep, the German Hänf and the Scandinavian hamp or hampa, are believed to derive from the *hanap- root, which in turn derives from *hanapiz. The consonant shift from k- to h- corresponds with Grimm’s Law, otherwise known as the First Germanic Sound Shift, in which many voiced consonants including k- began to shift to voiceless ones such as h- (also denoted as x-, which in modern German is pronounced like the -ch in “Bach”).
The word bhang, as well as its various related cognates (Egyptian banga, Tamil bangi) is derived from the Sanskrit bhanga, which in turn is believed to be derived from the Hebrew pannag or bannag (p and b being largely interchangeable in Hebrew). The Sanskrit language is most closely related to the ancient Iranian languages Old Persian and Avestan, and it is believed that migrants from the north-west brought the term to India and Pakistan during the second millennium BCE.
In modern times, bhang and related terms for cannabis can be found throughout south Asia and much of eastern and southern Africa, as well as some areas in northern Africa. During the 10th to the 15th centuries, Arab, Asian and later Portuguese traders brought cannabis from Asia to east Africa, where it then spread throughout the continent by local traders and tribespeople. In 1609, the Dominican priest Joao dos Santos described the practice of chewing cannabis leaves which South African locals referred to as bangue, and from which an intoxicating drink of the same name was made.
Cannabis is known as ganja throughout much of the world, although the term originated in India. Ganja is a good example of a name that originated from one particular region and then spread elsewhere, as the cultural aspects of cannabis were exported along with the plant itself. Ganja may also ultimately derive from the same PIE root *kan(n)aB-, although if so, its passage into modern language occurred via different routes.
Ganja and related cognates (ganjari, gunja, kanchavu) are thought to derive from another Sanskrit term for cannabis, gañjya-, which may in turn have derived from a Sumerian word found on tablets dating back to at least 700 BCE, ganzigunnu, where ganzi- is cognate with ganja and -gunnu with qaneh or kunneh. The term ganzigunnu therefore neatly marries the Near Eastern word grouping with that of the Far East.
Other words for cannabis
There are several other terms for cannabis which do not originate from the PIE root *kan(n)aB-, but which may have some shared ancestry or more recent affiliation—such as the Mexican Spanish marijuana and the Chinese ma.
Marijuana, an obscure term prior to its popularisation by the U.S. campaign to prohibit cannabis in the 1920s and ’30s, may derive from the Nahuatl word mallihuan, meaning “prisoner”, although this may also be a case of coincidental homophony. It may also partly derive from the Spanish name Maria Juana, or Mary Jane—which may partly explain the emergence of various ritualistic practices linked to the Virgin Mary (Maria), such as the Doctrine of Santa Maria, a Brazilian religious group that ritualises use of cannabis. Its development may also correspond to some degree to the introduction of the Chinese word ma hua (meaning “cannabis/hemp flowers”) to local vernacular as migrants workers were brought to the region.
However, the association between the two words may be much more ancient. Both marijuana and ma may derive from the Semitic consonant group mrr (most Semitic languages, including modern Hebrew, do not make use of vowels). The Chinese ma is thought to originate from the root mrj, pronounced *maraj or *mraj; the shared Semitic root is thought to have developed into the modern term marijuana via an Arabic loan word brought to Spain by the Moors.