The Most Popular Theory Why Mary Jane Is Slang For Marijuana

Humans have been using the cannabis plant to alter their consciousness for thousands of years, according to Science. As of this writing, 37 states in the U.S. have legalized the plant for medicinal use, with 18 states allowing for lawful recreational use by adults, per the National Conference of State Legislators. (Despite this, cannabis use remains illegal as a matter of federal law.) But for decades, the use of cannabis in the U.S. was a one-way ticket to jail, and as such, it went underground. There, a sort of sub-culture developed around cannabis, its uses, and the fight to legalize it — and like a lot of subcultures, various slang words organically attached themselves to the movement.

Indeed, the list of slang terms for cannabis is lengthy. Popular terms include English versions of foreign words (like "ganja"), comic in-the-know idioms (like "chronic"), and references to it being a plant (like "weed"). One of the most common names for cannabis, at least in the U.S., is "marijuana," the Spanish-language name for the plant presumably used in Mexico. (The word itself comes with some historically-fraught baggage, per NPR.) And the word "marijuana" is believed to be the basis for another slang term for cannabis: "Mary Jane."

The connection between the words marijuana and Mary Jane

Figuring out the origins of certain words can be complicated under the best of circumstances. When it comes to words borne from an illegal and underground subculture, all bets are off. It seems all that can certainly be said for the words "marijuana" and "Mary Jane." 

Linguistically, both words certainly sound similar, according to the cannabis culture website Merry Jane (pun noted). "Mary" is the English equivalent to the Spanish name "Maria"; similarly, "Jane" is the English equivalent of the Spanish "Juana." Per the outlet, some Spanish-speaking cannabis users will say they're smoking "Maria." (French-speaking users sometimes use their own like-minded equivalent, smoking "le Marie Jeanne.") 

Of course, all of this assumes the word "marijuana" was, is, and always has been a simple portmanteau. But there's a chance that's possibly not the case at all — and that the real story behind the slang is a lot more complex than it seems.

Where did the word marijuana come from?

As mentioned above, connecting the dots between the word "marijuana" and the slang term "Mary Jane" partially relies on the word being a compound name — in this case, a combination of "Maria" and "Juana." However, that may not necessarily be the case, though it bears noting that no one is really sure where the word "marijuana" came from.

One possibility is that it originated in a Chinese word for the hemp plant, "ma ren hua," per NPR. (Or rather, something like that -– transliterating Mandarin to English is a bit of a fool's game.) Another possibility also suggested by NPR is that it came from a Mexican-Spanish term that translates to "Chinese oregano," or "mejorana Chino." And yet another theory is that the word derives from the Bantu word for cannabis, "ma-kaña," which would have been brought over by enslaved Angolan people to Brazil.

Long story short? The relationship between the words "marijuana" and "Mary Jane" is, as Merry Jane writer Randy Robinson put it, "the cannabis community's 'chicken and egg' argument."