Daily Archives: April 24, 2010


This word has a distinctive aroma, and one that varies notably depending on who’s seeing or hearing it. Mellow and friendly, or dangerous? Does the sense of illegality and opprobrium dominate, or is it simply moderately risqué, just a little louche? I must leave that much up to the individual word taster.

The taste also varies according to a few other factors. One is how you pronounce it: do you say it the fully anglicized way, which makes it sound like part of a sentence – “Does Mary wanna smoke some?” – and gives its beginning an echo of American too? Or do you say the vowels more like the Spanish way, which highlights its pun on the female name Mari-Juana, a familiar form of María-Juana, which translates to Mary Jane, which is one of many nicknames for marijuana (like all illegal or immoral but desired things, it has gotten quite a few ways of speaking about it)? Either way, it’s not too likely you’ll actually have a [h] or devoicing of the [w] in the middle of the word; we rarely do that even at the beginnings of words anymore (e.g., when, where), and it’s that much less likely between two vowels in the middle of a word.

Another factor is how you spell it. Its origins are still a matter of speculation, but older forms are mariguana and marihuana. Mariguana is generally not seen now, and just as well; with its clear taste of guano and the more squalid and fat air the g gives it, who would want it as much? Marihuana, for its part, is a current alternate spelling and one used in Canada by some branches of the government (Justice, Health Canada, the RCMP) at least some of the time. To my eyes, it gives them an air of official out-of-touchness, a starchy “correctness” that alienates them instantly from those who actually use the stuff. But for what it signifies, I must admit the spelling marihuana has a certain something marijuana doesn’t: the sense of inhalation or exhalation that the h presents, quite appropriate to something that is smoked. Compare the different tastes that could be gotten from different spellings of some other words: Cojiba instead of Cohiba, Tihuana instead of Tijuana, halapeño rather than jalapeño, or jabanero in place of habanero.

But the j has staying power. It sort of looks a little like a long doobie – the ij together in fact make a spliff-like form – but neither that nor the fact that a joint is also called a j (you’ll hear that one in Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening”: “I stepped outside and smoked myself a j”) is likely why the j has been preferred. I am of the mind (though this is purely speculation) that it is probably actually because of the salience of j in that position (what linguists call its markedness): it stands out more and is more memorable; Anglophones have a habit of assuming that if there’s a more marked form and a less marked form, the more marked form is the more correct one; it looks Spanish; and it resembles Tijuana, which just incidentally tends to have a similarly louche overtone.

Marijuana has of late gained other overtones as well, however. While on the one hand you see use, using, and users right by it very often, and it is quite often featured in a list with cocaine, alcohol, and even heroin, one of its most common collocations in recent times is with medical (or sometimes medicinal). And you will not likely be surprised to know that legalize, legalizing, and legalization are also often seen near it (and that’s from the Corpus of Contemporary American English; I suspect that collocations might tip even a bit more towards the positive in Canada, a country where one of the great national historians and literary icons made a TV appearance explaining humorously how to roll a joint: www.geist.com/findings/how-roll-joint-pierre-berton).

Now here’s a little take-away thought experiment for you: which do you think would seem more favourable to legalize – marijuana, marihuana, or mariguana?