Criminal: The Meaning of 420

Apr 7, 2017

The Oxford English Dictionary recently added the phrase 420 to its pages. This week's Criminal podcast investigates the origin of the word. Host Phoebe Judge interviewed the dictionary editor charged with finding the word's history and the two men who claim they invented the phrase.

Many people know that 420 has something to do with marijuana. But there are a number of stories about where the phrase comes from -- that it's Bob Marley's birthday, or a police code for pot or that it is the number of chemical compounds in THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis.

Katherine Connor Martin from the Oxford University Press set out to find the real story behind it for its dictionary entry.

"This is actually a particularly good example of a word to add to OED because it's widely known, but there's a lot of misinformation about it," said Connor Martin.

The real story involves two friends, Steve Capper and Dave Reddix, who bonded over smoking pot in high school during the early 1970's. One day, they heard about a field of marijuana near a Coast Guard base where they were told they could pick as much as they wanted. With a map in hand, they went searching after school for the magical field of marijuana. Every day, they met under a statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20.

"And we'd remind each other in the hallway that we were going to meet at Louis at 4:20. So we'd look each other as we passed by and we'd go, '4:20 Louis.' You always smiled when you said it, it was kind of a knowing smile. But eventually the Louis dropped," Capper said.

You can find out more about the 420 origin story and the two friends' search for their dream field of pot on this week's episode of Criminal.

Criminal is recorded at WUNC.