We added 420 to the OED. Here’s how it happened.
It just so happens that the term 420 is a cipher in both main senses of the word. When you’re doing arithmetic, it acts as a numerical symbol, and, when you’re not, it’s a symbol of an entirely different kind. It’s understandable why code words for marijuana arose during the 20th century – it was illegal in most places most of the time. What isn’t necessarily as obvious is how, of the dozens of terms the Oxford English Dictionary has recorded for marijuana, 420 came to be, by far, the most widespread means of secretly airing one’s status as, well, a pothead during that same period. In order to add 420 to the OED we had to find out.
Fortunately, a journalist named Ryan Grim had already done a tremendous amount of reporting on just this question. Every year since 2009, he has updated an article he wrote for The Huffington Post with more and more pieces of the puzzle. Dispelling the pervasive myth that 420 is a police code for illegal narcotics, Grim broke the story of a group of guys who went to high school together outside San Francisco in the early 1970s. They call themselves the Waldos.
According to the Waldos, in the fall of 1971, they got wind of an unattended plot of cannabis plants somewhere in the hills of San Rafael, California. In order to see if they could track down this hidden supply, they planned from time to time to meet after practice at 4:20 pm and go driving around. In the end, the Waldos never did find the plants, but 420 very quickly became their own secret shorthand for marijuana itself.
While there’s no way to say for sure how it happened, use of the code word seems to have spread through the San Francisco Bay area and was eventually adopted by the band The Grateful Dead. By the early nineties, the magazine High Times featured a flyer from a Grateful Dead concert, spreading the good word (albeit by way of that old erroneous police code myth).
High Times, May 1991. Credit: Huffington Post
Because the OED is a historical dictionary, however, including evidence for any term requires that it appear in printed text with a verifiable date. As thorough as Grim’s reporting was and as solid as the Waldos’ story sounded, we weren’t going to be able to cite them as the coiners of the term without a written record. That’s where our library researchers came in.
Even in an age when virtually everything seems like it’s online, there are still plenty of obscure books and short-lived periodicals from centuries gone by that are not, and very often they will just happen to contain the oldest examples of words and phrases we’re trying to define. For this reason, the OED employs numerous researchers across multiple continents to visit university libraries, consult government records offices, and generally do whatever it takes to find the pieces of information we need.
In this case, one of our researchers took on the task of contacting the Waldos to see what evidence they could give us to back up their story. He reached out to Steve Capper, one of the members of the group, who in turn was able to track down a cache of postmarked letters from the mid-70s and, earliest of all, a copy of a June 1974 issue of their high school newspaper for us to see.
Red & White (San Rafael High School), June 1974. Credit: 420waldos.com
On page 3 of this issue of the Red & White is an inset panel titled “Question Man”. The question “If you had the opportunity to say anything in front of the graduating class, what would you say?” lies in the upper center of the panel, surrounded by responses from five dim black-and-white faces belonging to five different students. An unhappy-looking kid answers, “My only fond memory of this school is getting kicked in the head in soccer”. A young woman with blond hair remarks, “I hope everybody is as happy as I am to get out of here, because now we can start livin’!”. And in the upper right-hand corner, hippie-length hair falling over his ears, is a young man whose answer reads in full, “4:20”.
Ordinarily, the challenge of deciphering the meaning of such a brief remark would give us pause about including it as an example. When you’re looking for the earliest evidence of something that has more than one meaning, you want to be confident that your first quotation couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. So, while it’s possible that the young man pictured had his own secret meaning for “4:20” (or indeed a very poor understanding of how and when to tell people the time), the fact that he said it in the same place where the Waldos’ letters were postmarked, that he did so in a context where he couldn’t possibly be explicit if he wanted to, and the far less subtle use the Waldos’ made of the term in their private correspondence a few months later (“P.S. a little 420 enclosed for your weekend.”), all makes it vanishingly unlikely that any other meaning is intended. Indeed, it’s quite reasonable to expect the first printed use of such a term would appear in just such an enigmatic context.
So while the OED will probably never be able to confirm 1971 as the year the Waldos coined 420 orally, the group’s thorough recordkeeping has still allowed us to conclude that the first printed use of the term as a code word for marijuana did in fact take place in June of 1974.