I live in the heart of a small lexical explosion—Boulder, Colorado, home to about 100,000 people (of whom 30,000 are university students), and about two dozen retail marijuana dispensaries. The lexical explosion is in the marketing vocabulary of a product that until recently, despite its being universally known and widely used, was contraband.
Marketers who would connect as many as possible of the 100,000 people with the two dozen dispensaries have an unprecedented opportunity, and judging by the amount of advertising on view, no resources or effort are being spared to insure that the wonders of weed come to the attention of all. The local free alternative paper, the Boulder Weekly, now has a lucrative income stream from the full-page, full-color ads that take up its back pages in every issue, highlighting the latest offerings of the retail cannabis trade. There is now ample evidence to examine this cultivated corner of the English lexicon.
Colorado previously had medical marijuana, and that fact hugely informs the development of the recreational side of the industry today. The recreational side, by the way, is increasingly calling itself 'adult use' rather than 'recreational,' perhaps in order to discount the notion that getting high is something for sybarites, a trivial pursuit, a thing undertaken merely for the fun of it; and certainly to discount the idea that getting high is something a pre-adult might do.
The most visible symbol of the consumer marijuana industry is the green cross. It originated on the West Coast with medical marijuana dispensaries the 1990s or 2000s , and it informs marketing in the recreational industry today. The cross still belongs to the medical side of the industry, but green and its largely pleasant associations have migrated to the recreational side. The names of local dispensaries include Green Tree Medicinals, the Dandelion, the Farm, Boulder Botanicals, Village Green Society, Green Dream Cannabis, and the Green Room. The trope of the therapeutic effects of cannabis also informs the recreational side of the industry, probably from the many formerly medical dispensaries that now also dispense recreationally: names include Helping Hands Herbals, Herbal Wellness, and Karing Kind.
Back in the day, the informal and extremely amateur illegal marketing of marijuana was not very adventurous and included, at most, some suggestion of provenance to distinguish product variety: there was Acapulco Gold, Maui Wowy, Moroccan finger hash, and the like. But all of that is so last century. The purchaser of cannabis products today can choose from a wide variety of marijuana subtypes. The industry seems to have settled on strain as a designator of a variety of marijuana with putative unique qualities derived from its genetics.
This also seems to be a carryover from the medical side of the industry, which has long been crossing Cannabis sativa with Cannabis indica, the two main species of the plant, to produce different effects. Strain has the advantage of being an easy word, and a less technical and precise word than cultivar, for example. It enables retailers to tout new "strains" on a regular basis—these days, it seems, on a weekly special basis. Locally, vendors have settled on a classification scheme with three major heads under which strains are grouped: sativa, indica, and hybrid.
The names of strains still partake somewhat of provenance, perhaps in homage to 20th century practice, even though most marijuana sold in Colorado now is also grown in Colorado. But other factors now influence the naming of strains, and appeal to a young demographic bent on hedonism seems to be the chief goal. Among strains offered in local shops this week I find B-Well Kush, Galaxy, Kush Dog, Glock, Bubble Gum, Stardawg, Booger, Timewreck, Super Lemon Haze, Sweet Tooth, Grape Ape, God Bud, Dubbya Diesel, Karma Bitch, Kimbo Slice.
The only useful unpacking here is to note that Kush takes it name from the mountain range called the Hindu Kush, and allegedly designates a strain of C. indica that originated in that area. The other name elements clearly spring forth from the imagination—perhaps the reefer-fueled imagination—of marketers who would confer some distinction on their product. Color names are frequent (purple, lavender, golden, yellow, blue), and fauna appear (gorilla, cow, hog). There seems to be fairly heavy borrowing from popular culture as well (Hell's Angel, Dairy Queen, Jack Flash, Pineapple Express). How distinct, really, are any of these from the others? Only their users could tell you for sure, but the dizzying variety of labels looks a lot like a theme that is ubiquitous in American retail: product differentiation.
Here's an example from the website of LivWell, a local chain of medical dispensaries. The description suggests that new strains developed for sale may borrow some of their nomenclature from parentage, much the way that people and pedigreed animals do.
Nug is a clipping of nugget and designates a cannabis bud. In examining the text accompanying the photograph it is instructive to remind yourself that you are reading about a medicine—the dispensary advertising this strain is for medical use only. What other products for therapeutic use would ever be marketed in this way? It's easy to get the idea that contemporary marketers of marijuana have taken some inspiration from another well-established genre: wine writing. If this is the case, we can probably expect the budding genre to eventually develop its own lexicon of descriptive words whose deeper meanings will be available only to connoisseurs.
Having settled on a strain, you are not quite ready to leave the dispensary because you have yet decide in what form you will obtain your product. The mixture of leaves, flowers, seeds and stems that filled the nickel bag of the 1970s is now completely obsolete. Today you can buy the dried and cured flowers of the cannabis plant—nugs or buds. You can also opt for edibles—a beverage, a bar, cookie, or other snack-like food with THC content. A third choice is concentrates, collectively called dabs, perhaps from the notion that a little dab will do you.
Dabs are made by extracting THC and cannabinoids from cannabis to produce oils that may be called shatter, wax, or budder. The appealing thing about these terms—and indeed of the term weed itself—is that they take their inspiration from the old and venerable native lexicon of English. Shatter, a word with ancient Germanic origins, designates a viscous, and somewhat unstable translucent concentrate that may have the consistency of putty or hard candy. Wax, a word that was present in English before the 12th century, can now designate a partially crystallized form of concentrated hash oil. Budder denotes the same thing, and is a clever coinage that owes everything to butter, but with a tip of the hat to bud and to the flapped North American pronunciation of butter that makes it homophonous with budder.
Confused? Your friendly budtender will help you navigate the complexities. I will be interested to hear from readers in other parts of the country and world where the marijuana industry is developing in order to learn what other lexical delights are emerging. And of course I stand ready to be corrected by experts about any misinformation appearing herein—not having inhaled myself since the 1980s.
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves
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