The word ma has been used to describe the cannabis plant since before the invention of writing five-thousand years ago. Ma might share a common root with the Proto-Semitic word mrr, meaning "bitter." Evidence of the earliest human cultivation of ma was found off the coast of mainland China, on the island of Taiwan. Chinese travelers who moved west carrying seeds of the ma plant also brought the plant's name with them, the word then becoming integrated into the neighboring languages.
Ma in poetry and song
Ancient Chinese prose and poems, including poetry in the Shi jing (Book of Odes), mention the word ma many times. An early song refers to young women weaving ma into clothing.
Use of the word ma in other languages
The term ma is commonly used to describe cannabis throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. The same character is used in kanji (大麻) to represent taima (cannabis) in Japan. In the West, the word is used by scholars and journalists when discussing Chinese cannabis law.
Root of Mexican Spanish word marijuana
The term marihuana or marijuana is thought to have originated, at the end of the 19th Century, with Mexican immigrants to the United States who began using the word after hearing Chinese-American immigrants calling marijuana ma ren hua, an expression which translated literally means "hemp-seed-flower". An exact origin of the word marijuana is uncertain. Possible explanations include other terms that can be traced to the Chinese word ma.
The word ma is often paired with the Chinese word for "big" or "great" to form the compound word dama or 大麻 (dàmá). Dama is sometimes used to describe industrial hemp, as there is a negative connotation meaning "numbness" associated with the word ma by itself.
Historical Chinese medical texts (c. 200 CE) through contemporary twentieth century Chinese medical literature discuss individual terms for ma, including mafen (麻蕡), mahua (麻花), and mabo (麻勃), referring to specific parts of the male and female flowers of a cannabis plant with differing cannabinoid ratios.