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The purple haze of autumn

Q: I’ve always assumed that the expression “purple haze” (a variety of marijuana) comes from the 1967 Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze.” But I recently saw the phrase in Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons and I can’t tell what it means there.

A: For hundreds of years, the expression “purple haze” has been used literally to describe the sky at twilight, the air in autumn, and other atmospheric conditions.

The earliest example we’ve seen describes the evening sky: “As far as the eye could reach, mountains overtopped mountains, till the summits were undistinguishable in the purple haze of approaching night” (Sketches of India, 1750, by Henry Moses).

And here’s an example from Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794): “The sun was now sunk behind the high mountains in the west, upon which a purple haze began to spread, and the gloom of twilight to draw over the surrounding objects.”

This description of the atmosphere at sea when gale winds begin to wane is from “Marine Scenery,” an account in The Naval Chronicle (January-June 1799), edited by James Stanier Clarke and John McArthur:

“When a gale of wind has in some degree abated, I have generally noticed a beautiful effect to arise from the purple haze which is cast around, and is finely contrasted with the dark clouds that are going off in sullen majesty.”

And this passage is from Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations (1861): “There was the red sun, on the low level of the shore, in a purple haze, fast deepening into black.”

As for the use of “purple haze” in The Magnificent Ambersons, we assume Booth Tarkington is describing the smoky air from the burning of autumn leaves in his fictional Midwestern city:

“When Lucy came home the autumn was far enough advanced to smell of burning leaves, and for the annual editorials, in the papers, on the purple haze, the golden branches, the ruddy fruit, and the pleasure of long tramps in the brown forest.”

The phrase took on several figurative senses later in the 20th century, including its use for LSD and marijuana.

In an entry for “purple haze,” the Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as a slang term for “Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), used as a recreational drug.”

The dictionary cites the 1967 sheet music for the Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze” as the earliest recorded example of the usage: “Purple haze was in my brain, / Lately things don’t seem the same.”

However, the lyrics on the single (March 17, 1967) are somewhat different from the sheet music cited by the OED: “Purple haze all in my brain / Lately things just don’t seem the same.”

It’s uncertain what Hendrix meant by “purple haze.” As Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek explain in Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy (1995), “Every time he was asked about this song, he gave a different answer.” Here are a couple of examples given:

“I dream a lot and put a lot of dreams down as songs. I wrote one called ‘First Around the Corner’ and another called ‘The Purple Haze,’ which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea” (New Musical Express, Jan. 28, 1967).

“He likes this girl so much that he doesn’t know what he’s in, ya know. A sort of daze, ah suppose. That’s what the song is all about” (Dundee Recorder, April 7, 1967, from an interview after an April 6 performance at the Odeon Cinema in Glasgow).

Shapiro and Glebbeek also cite “purple haze” references in works of science fiction and mythology that influenced Hendrix, and conclude that the song “was almost certainly a pot-pourri of ideas that parcelled up into one song.”

No matter what Hendrix meant by “purple haze,” many listeners thought it referred to a psychedelic experience, and the phrase came to be a slang term for LSD.

The March-April 1970 issue of Microgram, a journal of the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, includes “purple haze LSD” in “a glossary of ‘street’ names for drugs and related products.”

The OED notes that the amphetamine Drinamyl (dextroamphetamine and amylobarbitone) had earlier been called “purple heart” in British slang, a reference to its color and shape.

The earliest Oxford citation for the British usage describes Drinamyl as “a Schedule 1 poison known in the trade as ‘purple heart’ ” (The Guardian, March 23, 1961).

Getting back to “purple haze,” the phrase is now also a slang term for various strains of marijuana known for their high THC content and purple or purplish leaves.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from “The Lehigh Drug Subculture,” an article published May 7, 1993, in The Brown and White, the student newspaper at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

The phrase appears in a list of terms associated with cannabis, including “bong, hit, hooch, doobie, grass, gange, take, smoke, marijuana, kind, northern lights, Seattle, tasty buds, purple haze, blunt.”

The earliest example we’ve found where “purple haze” is clearly described as a variety of marijuana, is in “Epidemiologic Trends in Drug Abuse,” a June 1999 report for the National Institute of Drug Abuse:

“Several varieties of marijuana are plentiful on the streets of New York, including ‘hydro,’ ‘brown chocolate,’ ‘Cambodian-red,’ and ‘purple-haze.’ They vary in type of cultivation, color, and point of origin. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels are reportedly rising in Atlanta and high in Houston and Los Angeles, where sinsemilla with a THC level of 25-30 percent continues to be common.”

In Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the lexicographer Jonathon Green lists “purple haze” with two senses: “1. LSD” and “2. a strong variety of cannabis.”

The collaborative online dictionary Wiktionary defines the marijuana sense as “one of numerous strains of cannabis known for their high THC content and recognizable by the color of their leaves, which vary from solid purple to flecked violet.”

We’ll end with a picture of purple haze from “A Rainbow of Cannabis: What Different Colors Tell Us About a Strain” (Oct. 16, 2020), an article on the website of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, WA:

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