A new origin for ‘reefer’?
When different words with similar sounds cross paths in a word’s history, the work of etymology can be difficult. For example, the verb hang has several separate, but similar-sounding, antecedents in Old English and Old Norse, among them a strong verb, which means that a change of tense is marked by changing the vowel (as with sing, sang, sung), and a weak verb, which means that a change of tense is marked by adding a suffix (as with walk, walked, walked). This is why the jury was hung, but the man was hanged; the version with a weak inflection persisted in the legal context of a death sentence, because it was less common and judges liked its archaic sound, and the version with a strong inflection persisted everywhere else.
Our subject today is the more modern word reefer, which refers to a marijuana cigarette. The origin of the word, which first appeared in the United States in the 1930s, has always been mysterious; some sources, including the Oxford English Dictionary, suggest it derives from the Mexican Spanish word grifa, or marijuana – which is first recorded much later, however, around 1952. But another, remarkably similar, word is also in the running as a possible antecedent. This one has the advantage of earlier provenance, as well as a certain dark charm associated with the old underworld of New York City. (Since I teach at a public school, I feel the obligation to make clear, in passing, that I only get high on life.)
In the 19th century, underworld slang in New York City sometimes borrowed words from the professional cant of sailors, for New York was a major maritime city with heavy traffic in the sailing and shipbuilding industries. According to contemporary slang dictionaries, local rogues, roués, and sporting men found uses for slang that referred to sailors directly – lugger; sea-crab; duffer, a swindler whose game involved posing as a sailor – or derived more abstractly from sailing life: ark, ship; barnacles, handcuffs; boated, gone to sea; to boat with, to share one’s situation; captain, a sarcastic honorific. Notable here is the verb reef, which in the language of sailors meant to shorten or draw a mast or rope. (OED first records this meaning in the 18th century.) In the language of thieves, the verb reef meant to draw up an object as a step in thievery: ‘“Reefing up into work,” drawing up the pocket until the purse or portmonnaie is within reach of the fingers.’
The definition just quoted is from an underworld dictionary published in 1859 – written by a former chief of the New York Police Department. It was also in New York City, according to the records of the OED, that the term reefer first appeared in print, when the New York-based Time magazine noted in 1931 that marijuana’s ‘leaves can be dried, ground and rolled into cigarets, which are bootlegged under the name of “muggles”, “reefers”, or “Mary Warners”’. To me, it seems plausible that the slang reefer, for a type of cigarette, took advantage of a verb, reef – to draw, to pull – that had already been circulating as underworld slang. You draw on a cigarette while smoking it; in this etymology, a reefer is simply the instrument of that action, or reef + er.
The OED already advises, in small print, that an ‘alternative suggestion’ connects the origin of reefer with the sailing terms reef (rolled sail) or reef (the act of drawing up the sail), ‘on account of the cigarette resembling rolled-up sailcloth’. Perhaps this connection has seemed implausible because of the leap that would need to be made between nautical customs and the marijuana subculture. The professional lexicon of rogues, borrowing as it did from nautical terminology, may bridge the gap between these cultures. A great many slang terms from the 19th-century underworld have not survived to the present – sea crab, boat with, and barnacles among them. But many slang terms from that world have survived, and even entered the mainstream: for example, graft, bouncer, madam, bail-jumping, off-color, legit, and pull (as in personal influence).
From a historical perspective, the problem with slang – which is not distinctive in linguistic terms, only in social terms: it defines an in-group, usually one outside of the establishment – is that it doesn’t attract careful record-keeping as the language of the establishment does. Ultimately, the question of how reefer began – as reef, as grifa, as another source yet unknown – will remain a mystery until definite evidence comes to light. But mysteries like these at least demonstrate the complexity of the paths that even the humblest words may take on their way to general parlance.