So these dudes were, like, smokin’ some reefer in a reefer, eh? So and it was lucky that they were wearing reefers, ’cause they got cold stoned, and they woulda been stone cold without the reefers to protect them in the reefer while they were cookin’ up that reefer. Man, they mighta had a visit from the grim reefer! Hee hee hee hee…
Madness, you say? Hmph. Refer to a dictionary. We are simply saying that they were smoking marijuana cigarettes in a refrigerator train car while wearing heavy overcoats. And then we made a pun.
It is, indeed, largely coincidence that leads these three things to be homophones. Largely, I say, because undoubtedly two of them took their present form under the influence of resemblance to an existing English morphological construct which happens, by transference, to name the third.
Let us start at the beginning. In the beginning was the Germanic word reef. It referred to a strip of canvas, such as a sail may be made with, and seems to be cognate with the word rive. Oh, that other word reef referring to something sailing ships don’t want to hit? Apparently unrelated, but apparently cognate with rib. Anyway, a reefer is someone who reefs sails, which is to say rolls up reefs of the sails to reduce the area exposed to the wind (so, no, there is no derivation from refurl). It came to refer to a midshipman. And the coat a midshipman may wear (at least since the later 1800s) is a heavy, close-fitting, double-breasted thing called a reefer jacket or reefer coat, or reefer for short. Reefers typically have gold buttons and epaulettes, as they are worn by officers – a midshipman is a low-ranking officer.
Meanwhile, up from Latin came the word refrigerator. It shares a root with frigid, which is a condition in which you may wear a reefer jacket. But that is not the connection; it is because of the North American pronunciation – with the vowel like in “reef” rather than the British schwa version – that refrigerator came by 1911 to have the rigerat dropped, leaving what is pronounced and respelled as reefer.
And meanwhile there is Spanish grifo, “cannabis smoker”, related to grifa, “cannabis”, which is somehow related to the third reefer, which means “cannabis cigarette” or simply “cannabis”. Again, the existing English reef likely served as a bit of a magnet, and I’m sure that the sound of “reef”, modestly reminiscent of the inhalation of smoke (or of the sound made by a stoned toad) and a little reminiscent of the middle of marijuana, may have helped a little. At any rate, reefer in this sense was established enough by 1931 that Time magazine referred to it: “Its [marijuana’s] leaves can be dried, ground and rolled into cigarets, which are bootlegged under the name of ‘muggles’, ‘reefers’, or ‘Mary Warners’.” A scant five years later, a film came out by the name of Reefer Madness, and it was not warning parents of the dangers their children faced from refrigerators or overcoats. On the other hand, it was also not called Mary Warner Madness or – and J.K. Rowling will have been glad of this – Muggle Madness. Somehow reefer just sounds more seedy, sleazy, easy, with a bit of a wheeze, those Hispanic-sounding /i/s (not that Hispanic is actually sleazy or seedy, but we must be aware of the stereotypes that influence usage), and of course the ever-reliably low-grade retroflex /r/.
And we know which of the three words has prevailed most strongly. My wife came by a few minutes ago and, looking at the title of this note, gave me a swat on the shoulder. Fridges and coats do not typically produce such a reaction, I think, but if you dispute, we may call a referee…