Dear Cecil: Please tell me the etymologies of three words: joint, roach, and stoned. English is not my native language, and no one else will answer this question for me. Marie-France M., Chicago
In the March 12, 1938 issue of New Yorker, Meyer Berger begins a story about a dope-smoking party with the words, “It took weeks of dickering to get into a marijuana party, because I am not a viper, which is the Harlem word for a marijuana smoker.” After thus assuring his genteel readers of his innocence, Berger goes on to provide them with many penetrating insights into the seamy, depraved underworld of the Harlem viper, and included among these insights are a few observations on marijuana jargon. “Viper vocabulary,” Berger said, “changes fast–perhaps to confuse police.” As examples of this fast-changing viper vocabulary, he cites, among others, the terms “joint,” “roach,” and “the Man” (a detective), all of which have changed so much that they’re still being used today, more than 45 years later. Berger ends his story with some wonderfully hysterical comments on the psychotic horrors caused by dope smoking–murderous rages, schizophrenia, and the like.
The point of all this is that words like “joint” and “roach” were being used long before Meyer Berger ventured into Harlem with his bow tie, umbrella, and note pad–unfortunately, the people who were using them were not the sort who wrote regularly for the New Yorker or any other such publication. In the absence of literary citations, etymologies of slang words like this are nearly impossible to trace. Berger’s written use of “roach” (“A pinched-off smoke, or a stub, is a roach”) is the first I know of, and the only etymological explanation I can find for the usage (a rather tenuous one) is slang expert Eric Partridge’s reminder that “roach” also refers to a stubby little freshwater fish of the carp family.
“Joint” seems to have come to its present meaning via a very circuitous route that started with the 19th-century American word “joinery,” which referred to a specific part of a building. By the early 1800s “joint” had become a building; in 1870 it was used for betting parlors, in 1890 for opium dens, and by 1920 it was an addict’s term for drug-related paraphernalia. “Stoned” appears to be as much of a mystery to etymologists as it is to me and you. If you’re in the mood for some irresponsible conjecture, I’ll pin the usage to the battered physical condition of one who has been physically stoned, as with real rocks. Alternately, the derivation might have something to do with the 19th-century pub libation known as the “stone fence,” a mixture of brandy and ale.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.