If you are a language lover or a cannabis nerd, you may have wondered, “where does the word cannabis come from?” The origin story could be presented simply: we took the word “cannabis” directly from Latin, which took it from the Greek “kannabis.” The Greeks in turn likely borrowed it from the Scythians. The Scythians were an ancient nomadic people living in Eurasia, and one of the earliest cultures associated with marijuana. To learn more about how the Scythians used cannabis, check out Ancient Cultures that Got High. But various cannabis-using cultures existed prior to the Scythians, such as the Assyrians, Akkadians, and Sumerians. Can we trace the origins of the word “cannabis” back even further?
Ancient Near Eastern medical tablets refer to a word, “A-zal-la” in Sumerian, or “azallu” in Akkadian or Ancient Assyrian, that many scholars think refers to cannabis. The “zal” part of that root refers to “‘spin’, such as in the plant used for spinning.” Dr. Reginald Campbell Thompson was a prominent Assyrian specialist who spent decades deciphering Assyrian medical texts and was the first scholar to suggest that “azallu” refers to cannabis.
In 2005, esteemed cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan B. Russo noted, “there is no unequivocal proof of cannabis being the identity of azallu…[but] it is certain that no other plant in nature aside from cannabis remotely conforms to Thompson’s descriptions of its attributes. We have a plant that was considered psychoactive, was used in fabric, was administered as a fumigant insecticide, orally, cutaneously, and as an enema. It was pounded and strained as hashish, and its seed, stem, leaf, and flower were all utilized. An alternative beyond cannabis strains incredulity.”
Based on ancient Assyrian medical texts, it appears that cannabis began to be known by a new term around the 7th century B.C.E.: “kunubu,” or “qunnupu,” or “qunnabu.” Obviously, this word has a remarkable phonetic similarity to cannabis. Unlike the term “azallu,” there is “general agreement on the identification of ‘qunnabu’ as cannabis.”
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, the professor emerita of linguistics and archaeology at Occidental College, suggested a “well-researched hypothesis” about the Indo-European origins of the words “cannabis” and “hemp”.
According to Barber, “People all across the middle latitudes of Europe and Asia – and that would include the early Indo-Europeans (IE's) – knew and were using hemp since 5000 B.C. So when IE groups started borrowing a new word four millennia later, it had to have been for a new use: drugs. The old northern varieties of hemp did not contain the narcotic THC; and the 2nd millennium was probably the first time that enough people were travelling back and forth between Iran (where it grew) and eastern Europe that they could spread a habit, along with its source, the THC-bearing hemp. And the early 1st-millennium B.C. is just when we begin to find evidence for pot-smoking in the new zone.”
Barber analyzed various cognates for “hemp” and “cannabis” across Indo-European languages and determined that the early Indo-Europeans came up with two words, one of which corresponds to our “hemp” and the other of which corresponds to our “cannabis.” Barber’s hypothesis involves two stages: a word beginning “kan-” or “ken-” that spread across Asia (along with the hemp plant) in the late Paleolithic or early Neolithic era, and then in the early Iron Age, “an enlarged version of this very word…spread with the drug bearing variety.” This “enlarged version” is the “qunapu” that begins to pop up in Assyrian cuneiform texts in the first millennium B.C.E.
Sula Benet, a Semitic etymologist at the Institute of Anthropological Sciences in Warsaw, put forth another popular etymological theory for the word “cannabis”—that it comes from an ancient Hebrew word. She says, “the astonishing resemblance between the Semitic kanbos and the Scythian cannabis has led me to suppose that the Scythian word was of Semitic origin.”
Some scholars believe that the Biblical Hebrew term qěnēh bośem, literally "aromatic reed" (qěnēh- "reed", bośem- "aromatic"), refers to cannabis, but other scholars argue it refers to another plant like lemon grass or sweet cane.
In the English language, we use the word “hemp” to describe the fiber-type cannabis plant, and “cannabis” to describe the drug-type plant. So, where did the term hemp come from? The Old English term is “hænep,” the Old Norse term is “hampr,” the Old Saxon is “hanap,” and all these are derived from the Proto-Germanic word “hanapiz.”
Hemp is thought to be “a very early Germanic borrowing of the same Scythian word that became the Greek word, ‘kannabis.’” Fascinatingly, this “loanword preceded Romano-Germanic culture.”
While we may not be able to peer much further into history, it is clear that “cannabis” is an ancient word that has remained remarkably similar across thousands of years. If you are curious to learn how this ancient medicinal plant became federally illegal in the United States and classified as a Schedule I narcotic with no acceptable medical use, check out our article Why is Weed Illegal?
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