Probably coined by Jack Webb.
Dear Word Detective: From where does the name “pot” come from when referring to marijuana? I have asked several users of the substance but they seem to have forgotten. — Barry Longyear.
Ba-dum-bump. I feel like I’ve wandered into someone else’s act here. But I’m afraid that in making a good joke you’re perpetuating an unfortunate stereotype of potheads as forgetful space cadets. From what I’ve seen (from a distance, through binoculars, with Melvin the Drug Dog at my side, of course), the drug (or, as the Governator calls it, “the leaf”) actually improves its users’ memory. They remember, for instance, how remarkably funny late-night reruns of Chuck Norris in “Walker, Texas Ranger” can be.
There’s nothing like making something illegal to spawn a wide range of slang terms for the item, and illicit drugs have spawned hundreds of such names. Much of this slang is ephemeral and largely generational, changing through the years along with styles in hair and music. A few core slang terms, however, persist for decades or far longer (such as “junk” for heroin and “speed” for amphetamines). In the case of marijuana, “grass” and “pot” are the perennial standards, so widespread that major US newspapers have lately taken to using “pot” in news stories without the quotation marks that usually signal a slang term.
“Pot” as slang for marijuana has been in common usage since at least the 1930s and the subject of lively dispute among etymologists pretty much since day one. The most popular theory about the origin of “pot” traces it to the Spanish phrase “potacion de guaya,” or “drink of grief,” supposedly referring to a concoction of wine in which marijuana buds have been steeped. It is also said that “potiguaya” or similar words are used in Spanish to mean marijuana leaves. The only problem with these theories is that no one has yet found “potacion de guaya” or its relatives actually being used in Spanish. That, to put it mildly, is a pretty big problem.
None of the other theories that have been proposed for the origin of “pot” are as enticing as that one, although the simple substitution at some point of “pot” for “pod” (meaning, presumably, the seed pods of the plant) is certainly plausible. Unfortunately, “pod” as slang for marijuana seems to have appeared more than twenty years after “pot” did, so there’s another problem.
If I had to pick a likely candidate for the actual origin of “pot,” I’d go with one that harks back to another venerable slang term for the stuff: “tea,” referring to the similarity in appearance between dried “pot” leaves and tea leaves. It’s easy to image someone making a pun on “teapot” (especially since “pot” is sometimes made into tea) and adopting just “pot” as slang for the drug.