If you're hoping for a solid, easy answer about where the word “marijuana” comes from, you're going to be a little let down because the word's origins still remain a bit of a mystery. Variously spelled as "marihuana," "mariguana," and “marihuano," this word for cannabis (and more specifically the cannabis plant's resinous flowers) has a complicated history that has led some to forgo its use to avoid racial or derogatory implications.
There's no doubt that the status of “marijuana” as a universal synonym for cannabis stems from its introduction to American English by Mexicans immigrating to the United States in the early 1900s, but we're still not sure how the word came to be in Central and South America. There are several theories, ranging from the adoption of a foreign word that happened hundreds of years ago to the possibility that it's simply a more recent blending of the names María and Juana - Spanish versions of Mary and Jane. Here we discuss some of the most plausible possibilities for where the word “marijuana” really comes from.
1. The term may originate from a native South or Central American word (perhaps from the Nahuatl or Quechua ethnic groups) that was adopted by Europeans and incorporated as a word for cannabis in the Mexican Spanish language. However, scientists generally agree that cannabis wasn't present in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, so an indigenous word specific to the plant seems unlikely.
2. A per-Columbian Spanish word (perhaps “mejorana” which means “marjoram”) may be the name's origin, as Spanish explorers introduced hemp plants to South America in the 16th century. However, the Spanish word for industrial hemp is “cáñamo,” and this is not what Central and South Americans call intoxicating cannabis flowers.
3. Some suggest that Chinese traders brought cannabis, which they called “ma ren hua” (meaning “hemp seed flower”), to the Americas, where both the plant and name were adopted. Interestingly, cannabis is sometimes called “Chinese oregano” throughout Central America.
Until evidence of cannabis' use in the Americas before the arrival of foreigners is found or linguists make some new discovery, we are left to speculate about where the word “marijuana” really comes from.