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This question occurred to me as I was attempting to form an answer to this question:

Where does the word “spliff” come from?

In answering his own question, tchrist points to multiple sources arguing that the word is a portmanteau of "split" and "spiff." This theory makes a lot of sense based on the contemporary use of the word to mean "a mixture of cannabis and tobacco rolled with paper." It would then be similar to the etymology of "joint," which GDoS ascribes to the "joining" of cannabis and tobacco, although "joint" is now often used in contemporary slang to mean only rolled cannabis.

On the other hand, Jonathan Green in Green's Dictionary of Slang suggests the word derives from the verb spiflicate, and discusses the theory in more depth in an interview with Prohbtd:

"Spliff"—the first recorded use of the word goes back to 1930s Jamaica and the West Indies. I suggest that spliff could have come from "spifflicate," which means to beat up, but I’m not sure. That’s one word I never worked out fully.

Whether the split / spiff etymology holds any water seems to depend on whether the term originally referred to mixing cannabis and tobacco, or if it was simply referring to rolled cannabis only, and later came to refer to mixing cannabis and tobacco (somewhat the opposite of the drift in the word "joint").

I can't find evidence suggesting whether the original meaning referred to the mixture or not. The earliest reference in both GDoS and the OED is:

Here is the hot-bed of ganja smoking ... and even the children may be seen at times taking what is better known as their ‘spliff’

  • 1936 - Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica) 3 Oct. 35

No other early citations in either dictionary make it clear which was the original meaning. It is clear from the citations that marijuana is involved in a spliff, but there is no explicit mention of a mixture with tobacco.

Neither definition provided by the dictionaries clarifies the meaning either:

OED: A cannabis cigarette, spec. one rolled in a conical form; a smoke of cannabis.

GDoS: (orig. W.I., esp. Rasta) a marijuana or hashish cigarette.

Does the word "cigarette" imply that tobacco is involved? And more to the point, did "spliff" originally mean specifically a mixture of tobacco and marijuana, or just marijuana?

  • Just one more assumption: spliff = split + wiff en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/spliff – user240918 Nov 16 '17 at 10:01
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    The following is from Wikipedia: The term "spliff" is sometimes used to distinguish a joint prepared with both cannabis and tobacco, as is commonly done in European countries, where joints containing only cannabis are rarely smoked. However, in the West Indies where this term originated (especially Jamaica), a spliff is simply a marijuana cigarette, normally containing no tobacco. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joint_(cannabis) – user240918 Nov 16 '17 at 10:11
  • @user159691 Excellent finding, thanks. Unfortunately, that line in the Wikipedia page contains a "citation needed" note. If someone could find a reputable source that explains this, it could make a good answer. – RaceYouAnytime Nov 16 '17 at 21:28
  • The following extract from the Huffinton Post appears to support the Wikipedia article: “A spliff means different things in different regions. If you’re in Jamaica, a spliff is the same as a pure cannabis cigarette. But, in the United States and Europe, a spliff is a combination of marijuana and tobacco. huffingtonpost.com/entry/… – user240918 Nov 16 '17 at 22:00
  • @user159691 If you want to use that source to post an answer I would up vote it. – RaceYouAnytime Nov 16 '17 at 22:23
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+200

The first use of 'spliff' I could find was in the 27 April 1855 Lincolnshire Chronicle [paywall] where, in its singularity, it might well have been a mis- or deliberate re-spelling of 'spiff' (1862, OED), the shortened form of 'spiffy' ("smart, spruce", 1853, OED, in Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti; 'spiffy' with a broader sense of "decorated, spectacular" appears perhaps as early as the 1773 publication of Miscellaneous Poems, John Byrom, in an interpretation of one of Horace's Odes, and certainly as early as 1790 in a literal translation of Horace's Ode X):

...and in it was announced the fact that Mrs. Lyon was at Dover "as spliff as could be, and sporting a black veil."

The next use in the sense of "smartly dressed" was in the 27 August 1881 North Wales Chronicle [paywall]:

...she must have me sport (wear) my uniform to show me off to her pals respectable like, yer known; so I togs up spliff (dressed himself smartly), an' orf we goes like any toffs (well-dressed people) up to the nines (the height of fashion).

Although the sense of the 1855 and 1881 uses in UK newspapers is a bit different, they or similar uses may well have sponsored the adjectival use of 'spliff' as a neologistic advertising argot portmanteau-blend (the blended element is the long 'ee' from the end of 'spiffy') of 'splendid' and 'spiffy', as seen in a series of ads from the late 1800s in the Jamaican Kingston Gleaner [paywall].

For example, here is one such ad from the September 1889 Kingston Gleaner [paywall]:

Hats Off!
To the Ladies.
Just opened up the most unique and amazingly Spliff Double Terai Hats for Ladies! Not a Lady should be without one. They are of the very best quality and fit to adorn the beautiful!

(OED: "terai, n. 2. transf. A wide-brimmed felt hat with double crown and special ventilation, worn in sub-tropical regions where the heat is not so intense as to necessitate the use of the sola topee or pith sun-helmet. More fully terai hat.")

Ads for hats and other dress goods using the 'spliff' coinage continue in (and only in) the Kingston Gleaner through the 1890s.

A first use of 'spliff' with reference to ganja appears in the Kingston Daily Gleaner in 1929 (May 17, paywall), in a news story titled "Herbert Breakenridge, the 'Axe' Murderer":

...The deceased said that he was
IN HIS "SPLIFF."
He did not know what spliff meant. The deceased held the accused and began to draw him meanwhile he brandished the knife in his hand, saying : We must live in unity with each other....
Deceased said: All these fellows around here form up together and I don't see why they should not
LIVE IN UNITY.
He did not hear deceased say: I in a spliff. He did not know the smell of ganja. The deceased was smoking at the time....
The deceased was smoking a ganja spliff. Deceased said: You fellows around here grow up together and must not have anything but live in unity. Deceased also said: I in a mi spliff. He smelt the ganja and told deceased to go away.

A shortened variant spelling of the portmanteau 'spliff', 'splif', shows up again in the blended sense of "splendid and spiffy" in an ad in the November 25, 1929 Kingston Daily Gleaner: "...Mexican Drawn Thread Tea Cloth, real Splif".

In the March 13, 1934 Kingston Gleaner, the sense implied is again "marijuana cigarette":

In regard to the ganja trade there is many a yokel with ganja growing in a callalu piece, and the weed is brought up to Kingston by the bagful. Spanish Town Road has many a clearing-house for ganja and ganja-smoking parties were at one time common in that region. "Pass the spliff along" is the ganja smoker's watchword until he gets into a frenzy and commits some murderous crime.

[A "callalu piece" is a plot of land used to grow culinary vegetables. Ed.]

Considering that the advertising argot adjectival use of 'spliff' in the sense of "splendid, spiffy" (itself possibly sponsored by the rare earlier UK use of 'spliff' in the sense of "smartly dressed, spruce") and the later early appearances of 'spliff' in the sense of "marijuana cigarette" are highly localized, that is, only found in the Kingston Gleaner, such uses are unlikely to be entirely disjoint.

Although there is no affirmative evidence to contradict the fanciful proposition that 'spliff' was first used to mean a cigarette containing a mixture of tobacco and marijuana, equally there is no affirmative evidence to suggest that the contents of a spliff were anything other than marijuana. In short, ad hoc origin stories aside, there is no reason to suppose that 'spliff', as originally used, meant anything other than "ganja cigarette" and, by extension, "ganja".

  • Does an earlier part of the 1929 article say "...spliff meant ganja. He went away when the deceased and the accused began to quarrel. " ? One OCR version says that. I'm to cheap to pay for the real thing. – DavePhD Jan 9 '18 at 13:31
  • @DavePhD, "He did not hear the deceased say: I in a me spliff. He did not know if spliff meant ganja." Several variants appear in cross-examination. – JEL Jan 9 '18 at 17:15
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The earliest definition of "spliff" that I see is in the 1961 Spotlight: Caribbean Newsmagazine:

a “spliff" which is the ganja cigarette, a conical object made by hand, rolled with “skin" which is the rice paper stripped from the silver paper in a cigarette box.

The oldest reference I see so far indicating that a "spliff" is a mixture with tobacco is the 1967 Newcastle Medical Journal which says:

The amounts smoked vary tremendously from person to person, but compared with tobacco it takes a tiny amount to cause intoxication. A salt spoonful of powder, or a flake of resin half the size of a little fingernail mixed with the contents of a cigarette is made into an outsize reefer, or spliff, with three or five cigarette papers, one parallel and two crosswise. If resin is used it is usually preheated, when it crumbles and mixes easily with tobacco. The end of the spliff is twisted to keep the contents in. The cost is between 2/6d. and 5/- per cigarette. Various drugs may be added such as Datura, Amphetamines, aspirin or opium, all of which are volatile and effective when taken in this way. Pharmacology There is considerable argument about which of the many constituents of Cannabis resin are responsible for the pharmacological effects.

Similarly, the 1972 Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding says:

The typical ganja cigarette or cigar, termed a spliff, is roughly a four-inch-long paper cone and contains about two to three grams of ganja with a delta 9 THC content of about 2.9% on the average (range of 0.7–10.3%) mixed with about half of a Tobacco cigarette.

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This is probably the most reliable source for the answer: "split the difference" = "spliff".

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Spliff

  • Interesting, though this etymology seems to conflict with user159691's findings on Wikipedia that claim spliffs originally did not have tobacco. Given the conflict between Urban Dictionary and an uncited claim on Wikipedia, I'm still holding out that someone can find a reputable source. – RaceYouAnytime Jan 4 '18 at 13:50
  • englishtohindi.in/meaning-of-spliff-in-hindi.html in that cannabis was introduced into the West Indies by indentured East Indians, I'd suggest that it may have originally been a Hindi term meaning a pure cannabis cigarette. Then later became corrupted to mean "split the difference", in that smokers sometimes use creatively borrowed expressions. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_indenture_system nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/… The forgotten story of India’s colonial slave workers who began leaving home 180 yrs – Bread Jan 4 '18 at 14:38
  • It seems very likely that the East Indians who came over to help colonize Jamaica brought their cannabis or hemp with them and then combined it with the native tobacco which no doubt was already being grown when they got there. "Tobacco has been grown in Jamaica for as far back as anyone can tell...Jamaica has the perfect climate and soil conditions for rich, flavorful tobacco." jamaicancigars.com/history Ganja itself is Indonesian. So Jamaicans received a lot of culture from East Indians. I'm probably the only one here that didn't know that, lol. – Bread Jan 4 '18 at 21:49
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Leafly says that the naming of a spliff (with or without tobacco) is regionally based. If that's the best source, well there you go.

To me (from Vancouver, BC Cannabis) the expression "Fire up a spliff." or "Roll a spliff." implies: "Roll a puny joint, fast and poorly" - which isn't done, instead a big joint that's well rolled is produced (but then what sort is going to put tobacco (harsh poison) with fine Cannabis). YMMV, sigh.

Others: Spliffy: a spiffy spliff, (since you wouldn't want a lousy one). The Urban Dictionary even goes the other way, to say that a "spliff" is not a "joint with tobacco" but instead "a cigarette with marijuana"; their second definition is that it's "a high quality, well rolled, marijuana cigarette" (which is what I wrote above, "ask for lousy and quick" but you get the best).

Disclaimer: But, for decades it's been difficult to buy poor quality weed in Vancouver.

Despite it being illegal 100's of stores have signs, in the street and in the window (even with various buds stuck on the sign), saying various types for 4-8 / gram.

So, spliff (which almost no one says) probably doesn't have the same meaning (as places with expensive weed and/or harsh laws), much like the term Vansterdam isn't used because it undercuts Van's rep. Whatever you say, even "light one", implies size and quality are not going to be disappointing (and no one would put tobacco in a joint).

  • People have been mixing cannabis with tobacco for at least 200 years. See the "cannabis" entry in this 1819 encyclopedia: "Indians ... smoke its dried leaves mingled with tobacco". books.google.com/… – DavePhD Jan 9 '18 at 19:13
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From my personal experience only. I was 20 years old in 1970, living in lachine Quebec. Which would be roughly when I first heard the word. In that time and place spliff referred to a hand-rolled cigarette containing tobacco and hashish.

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Strangely, a 1920 book Freshman Composition by University of Wisconsin English professor Henry Burrowes Lathrop warns against using the colloquial word "spliff" in serious writing, saying at page 166 (italics in original text):

"Cheeky," and "spliff," and "limelight," and "pep" in serious writing will prejudice at least some people against the writer, while pert, and fine, and foreground, and fire will not offend anyone.

This implies that as of 1920 "spliff" was a slang synonym of "fine".

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