Etymology of cannabis
The plant name Cannabis is derived originally from a Scythian or Thracian word, which loaned into Persian as kanab, then into Greek as κάνναβις (kánnabis) and subsequently into Latin as cannabis. The English hemp (Old English hænep) may be an early loan (predating Grimm’s Law) from the same Scythian source.
The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest usages of cannabis meaning the plant “common hemp, Cannabis sativa” in 1548 and meaning parts of the plant “smoked, chewed, or drunk for their intoxicating or hallucinogenic properties” in 1848. The OED traces the etymology to the New Latin botanical term cannabis – proposed in 1728 and standardized in Carl Linnaeus‘s (1753) Species Plantarum – from an earlier Latin cannabis, coming from Greek kánnabis.
Herodotus (c. 440 BCE) recorded the use of cannabis in The Histories. “The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed [presumably, flowers], and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy.”
The historian and linguist Douglas Harper gives an etymology of English cannabis from Greek kannabis, from a Scythian or Thracian word, which is also the source for English canvas (viz., hempen fabric) and possibly hemp.
Based upon the botany, archeology, and linguistic history of cannabis, Elizabeth Wayland Barber concluded,
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 cognate words for “hemp” and “cannabis” in Indo-European languages, and proposed an etymological root of *kan(n)aB- (where *B represents a *p or *b bilabial stop). A reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *p is evident in many IE subgroups:
- Albanian (kanëp)
- Armenian (kanap)
- Baltic languages (Lithuanian kanãpė, Latvian kaņepe, and Old Prussian knapios)
- Slavic languages (Russian konopljá, Croatian konoplja, Bulgarian konop, and Czech konopĕ)
Words in Germanic languages (Old English hænep, Old Norse hampr, and German der Hanf) go back to *hanap-, which by Grimm’s Law would come from a *kanab- form, but this loanword preceded Romano-Germanic culture. A reconstructed PIE *b is evident in Latin cannabis (Vulgar Latin *can(n)abum, *canaba) from Greek kannabis, the earliest recorded term for the drug, which transcribed a Scythian or Thracian word. The Scythians spoke Iranian dialects, and Indo-Iranian languages have two words, represented by Sanskrit śaṇa- “a kind of hemp” (from *kana- or *kene- forms) and bhanga “narcotic hemp” (cf. bhang). From the Uralic and Turkic languages, Barber cited Mari kene or kine “hemp”, Chuvash kantär, Old Turkish käntir, Turkish kendir and kenevir, and Karakalpak kenep. Further corroboration comes from 1st millennium BCE Neo-Assyrian cuneiform texts, “where a word qunabu (qunnapu, qunubu, qunbu) begins to turn up, for a source of oil, fiber and medicine.”
Thus, Barber’s well-researched hypothesis involves two stages: in the late Palaeolithic and early Neolithic, a *ken- or *kan- name spread across Asia with the hemp plant, which was used for fiber and food; then in the early Iron Age, “an enlarged version of this very word, local to Iran and perhaps northern India…spread with the drug-bearing variety.”
Semitic etymologist Sula Benet, of the Institute of Anthropological Sciences in Warsaw, has indicated the origin to be the Hebrew word קַנַּבּוֹס (qannabbôs) kaneh bosm. Benet, (also known as Sara Benetowa) is quoted saying:
The astonishing resemblance between the Semitic kanbos and the Scythian cannabis lead me to suppose that the Scythian word was of Semitic origin. These etymological discussions run parallel to arguments drawn from history. The Iranian Scythians were probably related to the Medes, who were neighbors of the Semites and could easily have assimilated the word for hemp. The Semites could also have spread the word during their migrations through Asia Minor.
Benet — in Book of Grass
The word ‘gan-zi-gun-nu’ is referenced from stone tablets (dating 700 BCE) that indicate a connection with eastern and near-eastern terms for the plant (gan-zi > ganja, gun-nu > qaneh). This substance was used for witchcraft and prescribed as a useful remedy for a variety of ailments including depression and impotence.
Hebrew קַנַּבּוֹס (qannabbôs) from קְנֵה בֹּשֶׂם (qěnēh bośem) may derive from Sumerian kunibu, though the final -s does not seem to be present in Akkadian (Assyrian) or Sumerian forms. Leading authorities on the etymology of both the German and Russian languages list a Sumerian cognate.
Raphael Mechoulam and co-workers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggest an alternative etymology for cannabis: Greek cannabis < Arabic kunnab < Syriac qunnappa < Hebrew pannag (= bhanga in Sanskrit and bang in Persian). They explain that in Hebrew, only the consonants form the basis of a word and the letters p and b are frequently interchangeable. The authors think it probable that ‘pannag’, mentioned in the Bible by the prophet Ezekiel (27:17), is in fact Cannabis.
The Biblical Hebrew term qěnēh bośem, literally “aromatic reed” (qěnēh- “reed”, bośem- “aromatic”), probably refers to cannabis according to some etymologists, but is more commonly thought to be lemon grass, calamus, or even sweet cane, due to widespread translation issues. The Hebrew Bible mentions it in Exodus 30:23 where God commands Moses to make a holy oil of myrrh, cinnamon, qěnēh bośem and cassia to anoint the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle (and thus God’s Temple in Jerusalem). Notably, this anointing oil is a special herbal formula that functions as a kind of polish and fragrance for the Ark and Tabernacle, and the Bible forbids its manufacture and use to anoint people (Exodus 30:31–33) with the exception of the Aaronic priesthood (Exodus 30:30).
Elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible simply uses “reed” qānēh as the name of a plant in four places whose context seems to mean “reed of balm” as a fragrant resin, Isaiah 43:24, Jeremiah 6:20, Ezekiel 27:19 and Song of Songs 4:14. The Hebrew name “reed of balm” comes from qěnēh (the noun construct form of qāneh) means a “reed” or “cane” and bośem means “balm” or “aromatic” resin. Hebrew may have adapted the name qannabbôs from “reed of balm” qěnēh bośem as a substitute for the ambiguous name “reed”.
Unambiguous Hebrew or Aramaic references to cannabis are rare and obscure. Syriac has qanpa (a loan from kannabis) and tanuma (see the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon.) but neither is found in the Peshitta, the Syriac Bible. Late Syriac Ahiqar texts include qanpa as “ropes of hemp” (tunbei de-qanpa). The Hebrew word qanbes, a loan word from kannabis, is used in the Mishnah as hemp [Kilaim 2:5; 5:8; 9:1,7; Negaim 11:2] in the sense of a constituent of clothing or other items.
Cannabis was a common material among the Hebrews. The hempen frock called “Simlah” in Hebrew was worn as a mark of the lowly.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia also asserts the following:
- “The usual material for ropes was certainly flax (hemp)”
- That the cloth for tents called bait sha`r, meaning “house of hair” were stretched over poles by ropes of goats hair or hemp.
- “The poorer classes probably wore wrappers made either of unbleached flax or hemp“ (the hempen, again, being the Simlah).
- “Online Etymology Dictionary”. Etymonline.com. Retrieved 5 August 2014.
- “cannabis”. OED Online. July 2009. Oxford University Press. 2009.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2009, 2nd ed., v. 4.0, Oxford University Press. This 1548 usage was in William Turner‘s The names of herbes, “Canabis is called in Englishe Hemp.”
- Herodotus. Histories. 4.75
- Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. (1992). Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton University Press. p. 36.
- Barber (1992), p. 36.
- Barber (1992), p. 37.
- Barber (1992), p. 38.
- Witzel, Michael. “The Home of the Aryans”. Anusantatyai. Fs. für Johanna Narten zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. A. Hintze & E. Tichy. (Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft, Beihefte NF 19) Dettelbach: J.H. Roell 2000, 283–338, p. 6 of pdf (n. 11)
- Benetowa, Sara = (Sula Benet). 1936. Tracing one word through different languages. Institute of Anthropological Sciences, Warsaw. Reprinted 1967 In: The Book of Grass. George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog (eds.) Grove Press, New York, “pp. 15–18.
- Cannabis in Medical Practice: A Legal, Historical and Pharmacological Overview, Mary Lynn Mathre (1997) p. 38
- R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 636.
- These are: Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, Kluge 23rd edition by Elmar Seebold, 1999, on page 354, and Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, Heidelberg: Winter by Max Vasmer 1950–1959 in three volumes, vol. 1, page 615. There is also an article written in Swedish which lists kunibu-cannabis as a Sumerian word. This article is “Sumerna och deras kultur [The Sumerians and their culture]” föredragvid finska vetenskapsocietens sammanträde den 13 December 1943 av (by) Knut Tallqvist in “Societas Scientarium Fennica Årsbok- Vousikirja 22nd band No: 3, Helsingfors 1944, page 22.
- Mechoulam, R., W. A. Devane, A. Breuer, and J. Zahalka. 1991. A random walk through a Cannabis field. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 40(3): 461–464.
- Weston La Barre. 1980. Culture in Context; Selected Writings of Weston Labarre. Duke University Press
- Immanuel Löw. 1924–1934. Flora der Juden, vol. I-IV. Reprinted 1967. Hildeshein: Georg Olms (source not confirmed)
- Rabbi Kaplan. 1981. The Living Torah, pp. 40–41.
- Frock, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/F/frock.html
- Rope, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/R/rope.html
- Tent, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/T/tent.html
- Linen, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/L/linen.html
- “Dealing With Drugs In European Drug Control”, Dr. Tim Boekhout van Solinge (2004), Boom uitgevers Den Haag, p. 7
- “Cannabis: A History”, p. 27, Martin Booth (2005), Macmillan
- “Take My Yoke Upon You…“, SpiritLeaf (2013), SpiritLeafMinistries.org
- The dictionary definition of cannabis at Wiktionary