Lucy Ferriss at Lingua Franca has a post that made me as intensely nostalgic as yesterday’s Taiwan one, bringing back my late-’60s college days:

I began buttonholing friends and acquaintances. “Picture,” I told them, “a friend who is generally stoned. I say that he’s brought a lid over to my dorm room. What has he brought?”

Men and women born between 1950 and 1958, I found in this completely anecdotal survey, knew immediately that I was talking about four fingers’ worth of marijuana in a plastic bag. Those born before or after those dates (allowing for a bit of regional variation) had no idea what I was talking about. My copy editor, obviously, was a young person.

Slang references give a wide variety of definitions for the pot-related use of lid. Some designate it as an ounce of weed, others as 1/4 or 1/8 ounce. The source may be the lid of a Hellman’s mayonnaise jar, the lid of a Prince Albert tobacco can—in both cases, the amount of marijuana is enough to fill the lid—or, strangely, the finger-shape created by unrolling the lid of a coffee can with its custom key. One source refers to the fold of a sandwich Baggie as its “lid,” suggesting that the bag would be filled to that point. All these so-called authorities agree that the term arose in the 1960s and disappeared by the mid-1970s.

What puzzled me, as I wrestled with the sentence highlighted by my copy editor, was that when we were using the term, there seemed to be no alternative term.[…] [After quoting one theory:] If others have a different story for the rapid, widespread rise of the term lid in the mid-60s and its equally rapid and complete disappearance in the mid-70s, I’d be delighted to hear it.

Decades later, I discover a generational shibboleth I never knew existed!


  1. I’m younger than your stated cohort (born in 1966), but I know what a lid is: A baggie half-filled with weed, costing roughly $5; a nickle bag. NB: some of the people around me when I was growing up were quite well-connected to dope culture; I’m sure I didn’t encounter the term in my own teen/adult years.
    I suspect the decline of the term probably has something to do with the rise of other drugs sold by weight (as opposed to by discrete units like a pill or blotter square). When you’re buying weed by the ounce and coke by the gram, it probably becomes more natural to just use the actual weight measurements at all times. Also more people are going to have scales around, so rough volume measurements might become less common.

  2. Makes sense.

  3. In my day (b. 1948) “lid” meant an ounce costing $20. I was also familiar with nickel and dime bags, which were usually all I could afford at one time. I think the terms went out of use after the price structure changed drastically starting in 1974. As for the term “lid,” I suspect it to be by synecdoche from one of those Prince Albert cans.

  4. I think the decline of the term reflects a rise in prices in the 1980s as a result of Reagan-era drug policy. When I was gathering empirical data on the subject matter in the early nineties, the most common unit of sale was the dime bag, a gram or at most two for $10. And this was not fancy stuff–full of stems and seeds.
    I did know the term “lid,” but it was distinctly archaic, like “grass.” I probably learned it from antidrug propaganda that used outdated terminology. I also remember that such propaganda usually said a lid was an ounce and cost $20.

  5. I knew that it was a measurement for drugs but nothing further. Since I was born in 1964, I think I associate the term with The Mod Squad.

  6. As a Chinese, I find the non-Chinese aversion to footnotes in non-academic reading materials (from memoirs to fiction) very puzzling.

  7. minus273: … and I find it very annoying to have to turn to the back of the book every page or so to read the “footnotes”. It makes it so much harder to read the main text smoothly. Bottom of the page footnotes, for me, are far less intrusive, as I can see at a glance if they are simply references to sources, or contain matter of substance.
    I presume it was introduced because editors/publishers wanted the book to present “cleanly” without those pesky footnotes that made the pages look uneven.
    Perhaps LH could clarify that point, from his copy-reading experience.

  8. John Emerson says

    The measures kept changing names as they inflated. A “key” started as a kilo and ended up as maybe ten ounces, IIRC. Probably the lid got so small they had to start over with a new name.

  9. Born in 1966, I knew that a “lid” was some quantity of marijuana, but I never knew exactly how much it was. The most common measure among my friends was an “eighth” of an ounce, second only to the ounce, sometimes called an “o-zee”.
    The 80s must have been good years for Ohaus, who had to resupply a *lot* of schools with their triple-beam balances, as the stoners kept stealing them.

  10. Curtis Booth says

    In the late sixties in Salt Lake City, a lid was a small matchbox full. Since that generally wasn’t enough, the term got shifted to the half baggy, which would hold togther well enough if you licked the closure as if it were rolling papers.

  11. Born in 1954. In the mid-70s I knew the word, but it may have seemed a little old-fashioned even then. Or not. In some ways my memory of those years is a little hazy …
    I do remember one language- and drug-related moment from my undergrad days. A young faculty member whom I knew only slightly called out to me as I passed his office. I entered, and in a quiet voice he said “They tell me that you’re quite a junkie.” To me, that suggested that I was shooting heroin, but as it turned out what he really meant was “I’d like to buy some pot, and I’m trying to find a student who can tell me where to buy it around here.”

  12. There was also a term “L. A. lid” which was somehow supposed to be particularly generous, since many times a regular lid turned out to be less than an ounce. The implication was it had just arrived from California, where pot was plentiful, and the dealer hadn’t had time to rebag it. But I think it was just marketing.

  13. There was also a term “L. A. lid” which was somehow supposed to be particularly generous
    Ha! My college was in LA (well, Eagle Rock, which isn’t technically in LA even though it’s surrounded by it), and this idea amuses me. But yeah, marketing, and doubtless good marketing.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Quoth Wikipedia: “Also like H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville’s title and subject matter were often interpreted as references to drug use: the word “lid” is slang for a hat or cap (as in “flip your lid”), but “lid” is also early-1970s slang for an ounce of marijuana.” Born between Zann and Anthony, it was a word I think i must have picked up from books or something – I doubt I ever heard a contemporary using it functionally. OTOH, I do (sort of like Ben) remember the phenomenon of junior high school health teachers and the like using woefully-out-of-date drug slang in a credibility-undermining attempt to seem with it, and “lid” doesn’t have quite that archaic a ring for me.

  15. Same age as Ø. I don’t think lid was a common term in Britain, perhaps because most people took hash.

  16. I agree with AJP, the “lid” is not a measure I recall from my days of mixing with potheads (early 1970s). Now the “ten-bob deal” (the amount of cannabis resin that could be obtained from a dealer for a pre-decimalisation sum of 10 shillings, or 50p, today worth perhaps £5)- there’s a phrase likely to make any 60+-year-old Briton nostalgic for outsize Rizla papers and skinning up on LP covers …

  17. In the mid-’80s among (let us just say) urban high schoolers, “lid” was still used, but more as a general term; no specific weight connotation was attached. Purchases were (hypothetically) made acording to titular weight — “an eighth” or “a quarter”

  18. Charles Perry says

    In my day (viz. early Sixties, b. 1941) a lid was often defined in police reports as “an ostensible ounce.” For a long time the going price was around $20 (depending on seasonal supply), so it could be conveniently subdivided into dime bags and nickel bags — by hip convention, dollar denominations were referred to by these knowing diminutives (we were at the age when it is all-important to appear knowing).
    “Ostensible” was the operative word. The height of wit was to refer to eleven as “a dealer’s dozen.”

  19. Charles Perry says

    Somewhat off the topic, in an earlier period “lid” was a synonym for “topper,” viz. a hat. An even more obscure synonym was “tile,” as in the 19th-century comic song “Where Did You Get That Hat?” (“Where did you get that hat?/ Where did you get that tile?/ Isn’t it a nobby one/ and just the proper style?” This was sarcastic, the hat was implicitly embarrassing to wear. The comedy was that the addressee was wearing it as the condition of a receiving a considerable inheritance. The following line is “I should like to have one just the same as that.”)

  20. I was born in 1967, and heard the term in the media when I was young, most notably in this Saturday Night Live sketch that satirized a frequently-aired commercial of the time. Never heard anyone who actually smoked use it, though.

  21. In “The West Wing” the White House press secretary would say “That’s a full lid” meaning something like “That’s all the news I have for you today”. I never knew where the phrase came from, whether it was related to the druggy usage.

  22. My wife was born in 1943, but was a bit of a late bloomer. In her usage, a lid was more than an ounce, possibly as much as four ounces. She adds that she never had dealings with any quantity larger than an ounce. In those days, nickel and dime bags were $5 and $10 respectively, but the price of an ounce or larger quantity depended on the source: weed, like wine, was all about the terroir.
    I’m crushed, crushed to learn that when Arlo was coming into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys, that those weren’t proper kilograms.

  23. Does anyone know why Americans (and Englishpersons, for that matter) would be using kilos in the 1960s? And why didn’t they convert them into their own native weights & measures?

  24. Well, they did, in the sense that kilos became ounces closer to the point of sale. But as I was saying, the weed business was much more international than it seems to be now: nothing had a lower reputation for quality than “domestic”, at least in the U.S.

  25. It takes time to develop a product. It’s the same with wine.

  26. My wife was born in 1943, but was a bit of a late bloomer. In her usage, a lid was more than an ounce, possibly as much as four ounces.
    Hmm. So if we extrapolate this trend back, for someone born in 1933 a lid would have been a pound. And for someone born in the eighteenth century… I don’t think there was that much pot in the world.

  27. My grandfather was born in 1878; I wish I’d thought to ask him while he was still with us. “Why, boy, in my day it took a team of mules to carry a lid!”

  28. narrowmargin says

    College in the early 1970s: We always knew that a “lid” referred to an ounce of pot. As for the origin, it was told to me by various people that it was as much pot as you could get into a shoebox lid, topped off evenly.

  29. Smaller than mules, but in 1960s Egypt I’m told it took two donkeys to deliver a rotl of cannabis ordered by an archaeologist unused to rotls.
    (“Rotl, rotel, rottle, ratel, or arratel: a traditional Arab unit of weight corresponding to the Roman libra, the French livre, and the English pound. There was considerable variation in the unit from time to time and from place to place, but usually the rotl was about 0.9-1.15 pound (450-530 grams). However, in some areas of the Near East, such as Syria and Palestine, larger rotls of 5.5 to 6 pounds (2.5-2.8 kilograms) were used.”

  30. Charles Perry says

    Might have mentioned this before, but “muggles,” an old slang term for marijuana, appears to be Welsh myglys.

  31. “Appears to be” as in “looks like”? The dictionaries say “Origin unknown.”

  32. Charles Perry says

    Slang dictionaries may say “origin unknown” but who would expect a Welsh connection? From my Welsh dictionary: “myglys, n.m. tobacco.” Related to mygyn n.m. “smoke,” myglyd “smoky” and mygu, “to smoke, to suffocate.”
    I wonder whether the word could have been transmitted by Welsh Gypsies, though I don’t find it in Sampson’s dictionary. I have a hard time picturing good chapel Welshmen smoking the devil’s weed.

  33. David Marjanović says

    I find it very annoying to have to turn to the back of the book every page or so to read the “footnotes”.

    Those aren’t footnotes, they’re endnotes, and I agree they’re very annoying – they make you need two bookmarks at once.
    I like footnotes, because I think in branched ways for which language is too linear.

  34. Somebody here can maybe help me out. I always associate the term ‘pot’ with the Fifties. In Victoria in the Sixties, I never heard ‘pot’; we said ‘grass’, ‘weed’ or ‘dope’. But I’ve been hearing ‘pot’ since at least the Nineties. I think that word must have survived in use elsewhere when we weren’t using it. So does anybody know where?

  35. marie-lucie says

    iakon, in Vancouver (BC) in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I think that “grass” was the most common word, along with “dope”, but “pot” was also very common. I don’t remember “weed” being used with that meaning at the time, but I was not around heavy users, let alone dealers, who might have had a different vocabulary. Of course, Vancouver and Victoria, although so close to each other, really had different cultures in many respects.

  36. We used “pot” occasionally in SoCal in the late ’60s, though the other terms were more common; I suspect it’s survived as a disfavored but never obsolete term that’s gotten picked up again for the usual need-a-different-term reasons.

  37. The really barbarous thing about endnotes is that it’s typical for them to be divided into chapters designated only by number, whereas the running heads in the text designate the chapters only by name. So you have to remember that you want note 45, then look at the running head to see that the current chapter is called (say) “How Much Is A Lid”, then look in the table of contents to see that that this is chapter 17, and then look in the endnotes to find note 45 in Chapter XVII. So you have to keep one finger at your place in the text, one in the table of contents, and one in the endnotes. Why, why, why? Book designers, your sins are many, and they are numbered in the Book of Death.

  38. You’re right m-l about Victoria and Couver having different cultures back then.
    Language, it may well be that in some circles in Victoria ‘pot’ was used (as it were). The really odd thing is that for some time the police use only the word pot, judging by quotations in newspapers.

  39. Cowan, I can’t recall having the three-finger experience you describe. It seems to me most of the books I read have pp. so-and-so to so-and-so above the endnotes.

  40. marie-lucie says

    Footnotes and endnotes:
    Each type has its good and bad points. Footnotes are immediately seen on the page, but if they are long or numerous or both they can eat up a lot of space on the page and even go on to eat up more space on the next page. That is very annoying, especially for the non-scholarly reader, for whom endnotes are easier to ignore.
    For the writer, scholarly publishers seem to prefer end-notes on the manuscript, probably because they are easier to read and correct – footnotes being automatically written in a smaller font, without spaces between the lines, and therefore more difficult to edit.
    I agree that cross-refencing the endnotes with the text pages and/or the chapters can be frustrating if it is not well thought out. Not all books have the relevant text page numbers on top of the endnote pages, or indicate both the titles and the numbers of chapters. But I think that recent books do this more consistently than older ones.

  41. Perhaps LH could clarify that point, from his copy-reading experience.

    I never responded to this, but I agree with marie-lucie’s comment (just above this).

  42. David Marjanović says

    Footnotes are immediately seen on the page, but if they are long or numerous or both they can eat up a lot of space on the page and even go on to eat up more space on the next page. That is very annoying, especially for the non-scholarly reader, for whom endnotes are easier to ignore.

    In such cases, they shouldn’t be notes at all, they should simply be part of the main text.

    That may be why some journals in the natural sciences forbid them altogether, some wring their hands in the instructions to authors along the lines of “if you really, really need one…”, and the rest don’t mention them but end up not having any in the papers they publish either. It’s quite a culture shock to read linguistics papers, where footnotes often extend across two pages, routinely take up more space on a page than the main text, and quite commonly contain arguments that are actually important for the main text.

  43. David Marjanović says

    …In this Shiny Digital Future we’re living in, though, there’s always the trick of Supplementary Information.

  44. I love reading footnotes. Long, juicy footnotes, full of references to hard-to-find sources, variant forms and scribal mistakes, whose unassailable summary is the single word in the main text bearing the footnote reference.

  45. David Marjanović says

    5 1/2 pages!

  46. With footnotes to the footnotes!

    ‘Toenotes’, perhaps?

  47. A(the) recent(est) LH post discusses an 80-page footnote.

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