3

In The American Pageant by Thomas A. Bailey, the writer is using "weed" to rephrase "tobacco":

By 1612 he had perfected methods of raising and curing the pungent weed, eliminating much of the bitter tang. ... Virginia’s prosperity was finally built on tobacco smoke. This “bewitching weed” played a vital role in putting the colony on firm economic foundations.

According to Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

the weed
informal cigarettes or tobacco

But "weed" nowadays is also closely associated with marijuana. If I am using "the weed" in my own writing, would native speakers take it to mean "tobacco"?

  • "Weed", in the context of something smoked or otherwise consumed, would almost certainly be taken to mean marijuana or some similar herb, absent further explanation. – Hot Licks May 27 at 12:22
  • That would depend largely on context. – Edwin Ashworth May 27 at 12:39
  • Tolkien repeatedly describes hobbits puffing away on their pipe-weed. In 1937 it would have been understood as tobacco (or equivalent), but the modern interpretation of weed adds a whole new dimension to the Ring tales. – Chappo May 27 at 12:47
  • 3
    A recent contributor to Wikipedia is convinced that the use of the word "weed" in the film of LOTR must mean Marijuana. Nobody else in the discussion agreed with them. – Colin Fine May 27 at 14:23
  • Take into count that "bewitching" might just be nothing other than addictive in today's terms. And tobacco is much more addictive than marijuana. – Cascabel May 27 at 20:52
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As is noted in the question, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines the weed as:

informal cigarettes or tobacco

However, the same dictionary defines weed (without the article) as:

  1. [uncountable] cannabis

So it would appear that there's a clear distinction between the count and non-count usages.

The question goes on to ask:

But "weed" nowadays is also closely associated with marijuana. If I am using "the weed" in my own writing, would native speakers take it to mean "tobacco"?

It will depend both on context and whether it's being used correctly. Most people are likely to distinguish between

I'm trying to give up the weed

and

I'm trying to give up weed.

But a sentence like "have you got the weed?" could be ambiguous without a suitable context.

2

There is an article here which discusses when the term weed began to be used as a slang term for marijuana and concludes that it was in the 1930s. Although it further claims that this name didn't become popular until the 1990s.
The word marijuana entered the English language in the late 19th century both according to the above article and Wikipedia.
On the other hand the name cannabis dates back to the 16th century according to Wikipedia.
I am prepared to accept that weed as applied to tobacco dates from the early 17 century.
Just how and why the old name for tobacco got applied to marijuana is unclear.

  • Cop: What you got there??? Kid on street: Just some weed. – Hot Licks May 27 at 20:51

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