Written By: Daniel Cina
Language holds the power to transport us through time and space, revealing the hidden origins and rich histories of the words we use every day. After all, we’ve only been communicating with each other since the dawn of humanity. Language is the key to understanding who we are humans, from early oral tradition all the way until modern times.
Words themselves have their own history in a subject called Etymology and today we’ll be studying cannabis’ etymology! We know that every word we use stems from different cultures and uses, and cannabis is no exception. It is one such word that has captivated both scholars and enthusiasts all over the world. It is a word that has had many iterations over the millennia, earning both praise and scorn.
In this article, we embark on a linguistic journey to unravel cannabis’ etymology, exploring its roots (no pun intended) and tracing its path to the modern English language.
Ancient Beginnings of Cannabis’ Etymology
To truly understand cannabis’ etymology, we must delve into the ancient world. The word finds its roots in the Proto-Indo-European language, the ancestral tongue from which many European and Indo-Iranian languages evolved. To begin with the total starting point of the term cannabis, many believe it stems from an ancient Thracian or Scythian word. The word they used itself has been lost to history, but we do know that this iteration of this ancient word evolved into the Persian form of the term.
Persian Influence: Kannab
As civilizations flourished, so did the use and cultivation of cannabis. The Persian Empire, renowned for its advanced culture and trade networks in the East, played a crucial role in spreading knowledge of the plant, advancing cannabis’ etymology further. It is believed that the word “kannab” or “kanab” originated in the Persian language, where it referred to the hemp plant and its various applications. As many other things often do, cannabis’ etymology transcends cultures and its name transfers in different exchanges.
From Persia to Greece: Kannabis
As trade routes expanded, and wars waged with each other, culture and language including cannabis’ etymology spread from Persia to ancient Greece. The Greeks, known for their intellectual pursuits and linguistic adaptability, encountered cannabis through their interactions with Persian civilization.
Granted these cultures for many years were sworn enemies during the Greco-Persian wars, but after Alexander’s conquest of Persia these cultures became more intermingled, which contributed to the Hellenistic period of the ancient East. This newfound cultural exchange allowed for the Greeks to encounter Persian “Kannab” who adopted the word into their own language, transforming it into “kannabīs.” Once again we see cannabis’ etymology move forward, but this time into Western civilization.
Roman Adaptation: Cannabis
The Romans encountered the plant and its name during their interactions and conquest of the Greeks (are you noticing a pattern?). As with many other aspects of Greek culture, the Romans assimilated the word “kannabis” into their Latin language, adapting it to “cannabis.” This Latinized version of the word would have a lasting influence on the development of cannabis-related vocabulary across Europe.
The English language’s heaviest influence is from Latin which was spoken by the Romans. It is after this point in history we see cannabis’ etymology become much more cemented in our modern language which means context to the word becomes much more of a factor.
The Medieval Era: Hemp and Hashish
During the Middle Ages, the use of cannabis continued, although its cultural associations and applications varied across different regions. In English, the term “hemp” emerged as the primary word to refer to the plant’s fibrous varieties used for textiles, rope, and other practical purposes. On the other hand, the term “hashish” gained popularity in Arabic-speaking regions, denoting the psychoactive resin extracted from the cannabis plant.
At this point in time we can see one of the major splits in cannabis’ etymology. While these two words stem from cannabis’ etymology, they have taken on their own specific context due to a culture split. These two words would be hemp and hash!
Modern Usage: Cannabis
As exploration, colonization, and global trade expanded, cannabis and its various forms reached new shores. The term “cannabis” gradually became the preferred name for the plant, encompassing its broader range of applications, both industrial and recreational. The word entered numerous languages around the world, retaining its core essence from the ancient Indo-European root.
The cannabis’ etymology takes us on a fascinating journey through time, highlighting the interplay of cultures, languages, and ancient civilizations. From its Proto-Indo-European origins to the Persian influence, Greek adoption, and Roman adaptation, the word evolved alongside human civilization.
Language is a living entity, carrying within it the echoes of centuries past. By tracing the etymology of words like “cannabis,” we gain a deeper appreciation for the diverse and interconnected nature of our linguistic heritage.
Today, “cannabis” stands as a word that transcends borders, serving as a symbol for a versatile and complex plant with profound historical and cultural significance. As we continue to explore the potential of cannabis, let us also remember the rich tapestry of language that has shaped our understanding of our favorite plant.
Next time you go into your local Nectar for some premium cannabis. Be sure to appreciate the name our favorite plant has been given as you can now see the journey cannabis has gone through over human history for its modern name.