Harry Potter and the curse of Indian hemp

THIS column is about how I came across Harry Potter in a store selling clothes and other things made from hemp.

Hemp (botanical name cannabis, source for canvas) was called Indian Hemp after its widespread use in India where ropes and gunny sacs from jute have been made for centuries. In North America, growing hemp was banned for 60 years until the mid-1990s, when lawmakers recognised it was a cousin of the marijuana plant but did not have the same psychoactive properties.

What is so special about hemp clothing? It is environment-friendly, I was told. A third of a pound of pesticides and chemical fertilizer goes into every cotton shirt, chemicals which are proven to cause cancer and birth defects and to harm the environment. Hemp is a hardier crop, so it does not require these chemicals to thrive. The store also had beauty products such as soaps and hand creams and lipsticks made from hemp oil. There was a small selection of biscuits and cakes made from ingredients that included hemp.

At this point Harry Potter walked in.

J.K. Rowlings has used the term muggles to refer to non-magical humans in her Harry Potter books. It seems that muggles has been a euphemism for marijuana for a long time, popularised by New Orleans musicians who found its use inspirational. The word was used in local newspapers as early as 1921. When the musicians migrated to other parts of the U.S., so did the word. Some writers on language claim that that this was the accepted term before the word marihuana (later marijuana) was introduced.

The creator of Harry Potter is apparently being sued by the author of Rah and the Muggles for plagiarism, listing as one of the examples the word muggles. Ms. Rowling's explanation of the term muggles: "It is a twist on the English word mug, which means, "easily fooled". I made it into Muggles because it sounds gentler." The court may please take note that neither of the parties can claim to have invented the word.

The story behind the origin of the word marijuana and the stigma attached to Indian hemp is as heady as marijuana smoke. Its creation has been traced back to an FBI agent, Harry J. Anslinger (sounds like "gunslinger", with an attitude to match). The FBI was created in order to fight post-World War I war on drugs in U.S. — the prohibition on sale and drinking of alcohol — and when the Prohibition ended many thought that the FBI too would be disbanded. Faced with the possibility of being out of work, agent Anslinger decided to create a drug scare. He chose hemp for its supposed poisonous and/or hallucinogenic properties, ignoring the fact that a hundred years ago (according to US National Institute of Mental Health), "extracts of Cannabis were as commonly used for medicinal purpose in the United States as aspirin today."

The "scary drug" had to have a catchy name, and Anslinger chose an obscure Mexican slang term, derived from Maria Juana (Mary Jane) — originally a brand of cheap cigarettes. If we notice that Juan (John) is pronounced as "wahn" in Spanish, the pronunciation "mari-huana" begins to make sense. Among a couple of hundred slang names for marijuana, some of the most common are: pot, weed, reefer, grass, dope, joint, seed, tea and Texas tea.

The FBI not only succeeded in making marijuana illegal, the horror stories it spread about hemp were completely fictitious and almost entirely racist. Among them: the plant would render decent white women susceptible to seduction by black men. These fabricated stories were widely accepted and even made it across the Atlantic to Britain where they formed the main theme of a book called Indian Hemp, a Social Menace (1956). "Reefer Madness", a 1936 film supposedly sponsored by the FBI to scare teenagers away from marijuana is so silly and almost comical in its seriousness that it is listed as a "comedy" in modern film catalogues.

Rowling's twist on the word "mug" is but one of many. Mug is a Scandinavian word meaning "drinking vessel". It was common in the 17th and 18th Centuries to decorate drinking mugs with grotesque caricatures of human faces, and "mug" became a popular slang term for "face". It also became a slang term for "guy" or "fellow", sometimes "a sucker" or "a fool". Children often "mug" or make a distorted face while being photographed. "Mugging", originally meant to rob by punching or striking the victim in the face. Crooks who "mugged" often ended up with pictures of their faces ("mug shots") taken by police.

* * *

In the last month's concluding column on war words, I forgot to acknowledge the source of the quote: "when the balloon went up for the gulf war". I now do. It was from William Safire.

E-mail the writer at:


Recommended for you