In the United States there’s a growing movement of people replacing word marijuana with cannabis, as they consider the word marijuana as racist. Although no similar movement exists in South Africa, the word dagga is still often used to express disgust and some consider it pejorative. But the histories behind the words dagga and marijuana give us the very reasons to reclaim it.
There’s still much confusion around the origin of the word dagga, but it is generally accepted that it’s an Afrikaans word derived from the KhoeKhoe dacha or dachab. However, the Europeans misinterpreted the word. Dacha/dachab means “intoxication” and also refers to Leonotis, a plant with similar leaves to a dagga plant.
Different variations of the word can be found in official European documents since the 1600’s, like daggha and taga, when they prohibited the Khoe from growing the plant. Early legislation referred to dagga as intsangu, derived from Swati (isangu) and Zulu (nsangu).
In the 1940’s the phonetic GA! was emphasised to express disgust for the plant. Still today SAPS and the media continue to stigmatise the word and use it as a form of disgust.
Academically, dagga tends to refer to the recreational use of the plant, whereas cannabis is more often used in connection to the plant’s scientific benefits.
Cannabis is seen as the most official word for the plant. It originates from the Greek word kánnabis; which was first recorded by Herodotus, around 440BC, when he described the recreational use of Cannabis sativa amongst the Scythians.
A branch of the cannabis-using Americans argue that the word marijuana is racist, because it was used by people like Harry Ainslinger during the prohibition period in the 1930’s as a pejorative term. He used the foreign sounding word to relate it with the poorer Mexicans and to bring fear and uncertainty.
In defence of marijuana, anthropologist Santiago Ivan Guerra argues that the word was once a means of rebellion. Similar to the case in South Africa, when the Europeans arrived in present day Mexico they prohibited the indigenous population from growing weed. Instead they were told to grow hemp for rope.
Happily, the inhabitants discovered that hemp could be psychoactive. They started using code words starting with Mary/Mari to please the Christian colonialists; hence marihuana was commonly used to allude to the plant.
Those in support of banishing the word marijuana argue that cannabis refers to cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. Therefore it is the most scientific term, giving the plant legitimacy and respectability. However, botanists still do not agree if cannabis indica and ruderalis are separate species from cannabis sativa or not. Still, some even claim that only those opposed to legalisation call it marijuana, whereas supporters call it cannabis.
Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is unsure if the word marijuana is ever going to be pushed out of the general lexicon; there will always be variety of words to describe drug. Weed and grass was used in a tongue-in-the-cheek way against the Reefer Madness, but it is still used today.
Only using the word cannabis will not erase stigma or change arguments on legislation. Erasing the word marijuana will actually take away from its history. Saying it will not give power to people like Ainslinger, as some argue. It will do the exact opposite. We shouldn’t feel like we have to whisper dagga or marijuana in polite conversation
Why give opponents of dagga the satisfaction of being afraid of the very word they used to propel fear?
Reclaim dagga, reclaim its history.
Other South African terms for dagga include: weed, zol, pot, ganja, groen tabak, umya, matakwane, giggelgras, and the devil’s lettuce. What is your favourite term?
Prohibition & Resistance: A Socio-Political Exploration of the Changing Dynamics of the Southern African Cannabis Trade, c. 1850 – the present. A thesis in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History at Rhodes University By Craig Paterson December 2009