10 Jul 2015

The Huge Vocabulary of Drugs: Slang Terms for Illicit Substances

Recreational drugs are known under a plethora of slang terms that parents and police officers often scramble to keep on top of.

Each drug can have a surprisingly long list of aliases in different regions around the world, and these change all the time. Drug slang is so prolific that a few years ago UK police were given a list of several thousand terms for recreational drugs that they were expect to familiarise themselves with.

Certainly each drug has its pseudonyms: ketamine goes under street names including ‘Jet’, ‘K’, ‘Purple’ and ‘Cat Valium’ (it’s actually a veterinary tranquiliser, so that isn’t a completely inaccurate name for it).

And because people have a tendency to get creative when it comes to experimenting with drugs, there are also many slang names for drug cocktails.

These include ‘Chronic’ (a mix of crack and marijuana, also known as a ‘Primo’) and ‘Elle momo’, where marijuana is laced with PCP, or a ‘Splaff’ if you lace it with LSD. Seriously hardcore drug users can also try ‘El diablito’ – a mix of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and PCP.

Human beings are also very inventive about the ways they take their recreational drugs. So there are names for marijuana rolled in a cigar paper (including a ‘Swisher’ or ‘Gar’), laced with various other narcotics, dipped into spirits or honey (which would make it a ‘Black Gar’), eaten, smoked moist out of a bowl, in paper, in tobacco leaf, or rolled in the shuck of a corn cob and sealed with honey (that’ll be a ‘Corn-stalker’).

It’s worrying that people found reason to try dipping marijuana into formaldehyde (the embalming fluid used to preserve corpses) once, let alone that they did so regularly enough that not one but several words for this have emerged.

The different forms even an individual drug can take leads to a whole new sub vocabulary. The drug that goes under the scientific name Methamphetamine is quite widely known as ‘Crystal meth’, and it’s referred to by this term in mainstream media. You’ll also find it referred to by other names including ‘Ice’, ‘Glass’, or ‘Blade’.

But that’s just for the crystalline form of the chemical compound Methamphetamine. In powdered form, the drug has a number of other names such as ‘Crank’ or ‘Tick tick’. There are also many names for good or bad highs, weak and more potent ones, and for different qualities of drugs (such as a ‘Teenage’, equal to 1/16 gram of methamphetamine).

The huge vocabulary of drugs

But why is there such a huge vocabulary associated with recreational drug taking?

For a start, it’s because getting high, or low, is a persistent human inclination and one with a long history.  It’s been suggested that humans may have extracted mind-expanding drugs from mescal beans and peyote cacti as far back as five thousand years ago, and archaeologists have found equipment used to prepare hallucinogens dating back to around 4 centuries BC. With any human activity, there’s a strong desire to share information and this requires a vocabulary.

But the huge slang vocabulary of drugs is about more than our tendency to talk about what we do.

Most recreational drugs have a tongue twisting scientific name (such as Benzoylmethylecgonine), a handful of mainstream monikers that are established enough that even the Daily Mail uses them (‘Cocaine’, ‘Coke’, ‘Blow’) and then a long tail of more obscure aliases that may only be specific to small groups of people (‘Llelo’, ‘Grout’, ‘Freezer’) – all of these examples refer to the same drug.

In the Florida Keys, you’ll see the drug referred to as ‘Booger’; Hispanic communities may use ‘Soda’ to refer to an injectable version of the same drug and London’s Cockney rhyming slang plays around with another slang term for the drug (‘Charlie’) to christen it variously ‘Bob Marley’, ‘Salvador Dali’ or even ‘Boutrous Boutrous Gali’. The French even borrow English words by calling it ‘Le Shit’.

But why so many different names for even the most popular recreational drugs? Firstly, because the scientific names for the chemicals involved are too difficult to remember, pronounce and use. Methylenedioxypyrovalerone doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, so it’s known to most users as ‘Bath salts’.

Even legal drugs are given street names – although these are known as marketing names by the pharmaceuticals industry! For example Methylphenidate, used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, is marketed as Ritalin.

A branding exercise

When any drug is given a marketing name by the team behind it, it’s all part of the branding process. Dealers try to find a cool sounding name for the product that they’re retailing in the hope of giving it more cachet and also possibly to make it sound less alarming.

Possibly the best marketing name given to any drug is ‘Ecstasy’, the most common name used for MDMA. The reason this term works so well is it describes the euphoria associated with using the drug. And the alarming prospect of marijuana laced with embalming fluid sounds much more attractive when it’s called a ‘Love boat’.

One of the reasons that recreational drugs are potentially so harmful is that the user has little visibility of what they are actually taking. In a legislative environment where highs are illegal, there’s no visibility of how a drug is manufactured, what it is mixed with, what the strength is and even if it is a different drug altogether to the one its sold as. It’s common for users purchasing what they are told is ‘Wet weed’ (marijuana mixed with PCP) to end up smoking marijuana soaked in embalming fluid, which is cheaper than PCP and also more hazardous.

It doesn’t help that some slang terms for drugs are used interchangeably for different drugs – in some cases a slang term for one kind of drug is also applied to another that is arguably rather more serious.  ‘Bush’ and ‘Leaf’ are used to refer to both marijuana and cocaine. ‘Junk’ or ‘Mayo’ are terms used to refer to both cocaine and heroin, and ‘base’ can mean either cocaine or crack.

Both heroin and crack lead to addiction much faster than cocaine, so confusing cocaine for one of the others is highly undesirable. Without any legal protection for those buying and using drugs, or any regulation of how they are made, marketed and sold, the vagueness associated with naming drugs is all part of the hazard for users.

On a lighter note, sometimes these terms can easily lend themselves to double meanings, creating humorous situations as seen in this classic video:


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