Paul Hostovsky


In ASL, 42 is the code-sign for weed. Not the formal sign for weed but the furtive sign for weed, like when you don't want others to know you're talking about weed because it doesn't feel safe to do so in the present company or environment. So, for example, you wouldn't use the 42 sign if you were having a spirited discussion about the pros and cons of medical marijuana, or debating the ballot question concerning the legalization of recreational marijuana, or giving a formal presentation on the history of cannabis sativa and its significance in religious and cultural contexts. But if you wanted to get high and you didn't have any weed and you didn't want anyone to know you wanted to get high and didn't have any weed, then you might sign-whisper to a trusted, proximate Deaf friend: HEY-WAVE 42 HAVE? Because the other, formal sign for weed, which is holding an imaginary joint to your lips between thumb and forefinger, is so universal and iconic that even people who don't know ASL will immediately recognize what you're talking about.

Deaf people in Colombia, on the other hand (no pun intended), where the sign for marijuana is the same as the ASL sign (though Colombian Sign Language is a completely different and distinct signed language from ASL), have come up with a simple and creative solution to the iconicity problem: The sign at the mouth is simply moved up a few notches so that it occurs on the forehead. That's the surreptitious way of talking about weed in Colombian Sign Language, the equivalent of the 42 sign in ASL. At least that's what my Colombian Deaf friend Jose told me when we were smoking a big fatty on his patio back when I still indulged in 42. Which I don't anymore. Though I still like to talk about it. Especially in sign language.

Over the years, I've gotten various explanations from various Deaf friends concerning the etymology of the 42 sign, but none of them quite rings true for me, and a lot of them don't seem to make a whole lot of sense. Of course, some things make more sense after you've smoked a little 42. And then they don't make much sense anymore after the 42 has worn off.

One explanation I've heard is that the 42 sign derives from the Ultimate Question in A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. The answer to the Ultimate Question, ‘What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything,' says the novel's enormous super computer named Deep Thought, which had been calculating the answer to this question over a period of 7.5 million years, is (drum roll, please)..... 42. Devotees of A Hitchhiker's Guide have long since tried to ascribe some deep, symbolic meaning to the number 42, positing various theories about its significance. But the author himself undermined these myriad analyses when he dismissed them all by explaining in an interview, "The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose 42. Other explanations concerning binary representations, base 13, Tibetan monks, etc. are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought to myself, 42 will do. I typed it out. End of story."

"But," my Deaf friend Harley says, "Adams doesn't mention the fact that he was stoned when he was sitting at his desk and staring into the garden, trying to think of the answer to the Ultimate Question. So that's where 42 comes from. It comes from being stoned. Pythagoras believed numbers had souls and magical powers. 42 definitely has magical powers. Ask anyone who enjoys smoking 42 and they'll tell you. And there you have it, that's the provenance of the ASL sign," says Harley.

But the thing is, Harley is the only Deaf person I've talked to who has read A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In my desultory research on the 42 sign, none of my other Deaf informants has read the book or seen the movie. So I have my doubts about the relationship between the 42 in A Hitchhiker's Guide and the 42 in ASL.

And then there is the theory that my Deaf friend Delbert subscribes to, which is that the 42 sign is actually a truncated version of 420, which, according to an article in High Times, is slang for smoking cannabis. The story goes: In 1971, five high school students in San Rafael, California, calling themselves the Waldos (because their chosen hang-out spot was a wall outside the school) used the term 420 in connection with a plan to search for an abandoned cannabis crop they had learned about from the crop's alleged grower, who had given them a kind of treasure map to help them find it. The Waldos designated the Louis Pasteur statue in front of the high school as their meeting place, and 4:20 p.m. as their meeting time to go hunting for the weed together, and they referred to this plan with the phrase "4:20 Louis". After several failed attempts to find the rumored marijuana crop, the group eventually shortened their phrase to simply "4:20" (and shortened the plan to simply getting high by any means possible), which ultimately evolved into a codeword for getting stoned, which spread like wildfire throughout California and eventually the rest of the country. "From 420 Louis to 420 to simply, pithily, perfectly, 42 in ASL," says Delbert.

But the most popular explanation by far for the origin of the 42 sign in ASL, the one that a majority of Deaf people swear by, is simply that 4 and 2 represent, respectively, the four letters F-U-C-K and the two letters U-P. That's the etymology I've heard most often: 42 comes from FUCK UP . "Okay, but in that case," I said to my Deaf brother-in-law Rob, when we were having this conversation for the umpteenth time, "shouldn't it be 62? Because the grammatically correct expression in English is FUCKED UP, with an -ED at the end. And FUCKED is 6 letters. So it should be 62 not 42. One gets "fucked up" not "fuck up". "Fuck up" is a predicate, or, alternately, with a hyphen, a noun. But "fucked up" is the proper predicate adjective, the part of speech that I think you're looking for here."

"You're overthinking it," said Rob. "Plus, it's not about the English. You should know that by now," he admonished. And it's true, ASL is SO not about the English. In fact, the stuffy English major with his orthographic corrections and grammatical pretensions is not countenanced in Deaf culture. Which is what made learning ASL particularly challenging for me in the first place, being a dyed-in-the-wool English major AND a die-hard pothead back when I first started studying ASL. It wasn't until I stopped getting high that my ASL finally started getting better. And it was definitely when I finally stopped correcting Deaf people's English that my relationships with Deaf people started getting better too.

"OK, here's the story," said Rob. "Pay attention. 42 in ASL comes from FUCK UP. In fact, I'm probably the one who invented it." "Yeah, sure you did, and I probably invented masturbation," I said, using that other universal and iconic sign. "No, I'm serious," he said. "Hear me out. This is how it happened." And so, for my education and edification, he told me the following story.

"I was sitting in my car in the parking lot, waiting for my friends to come, my bong resting on the steering wheel while I fired up a bowl, and then another, and another. After fifteen or twenty minutes, I opened the window a crack, and when the Niagara Falls of pot smoke had receded, what did I see but two cop cars on either side of me with their lights flashing. Oh shit, I thought. What lousy luck! But it wasn't lousy luck. It had nothing to do with luck. It had to do with FUCK UP. It had to do with smoking weed while being DEAF: It had to do with propping my bong up on the car horn while blithely toking away, not realizing that I was honking the horn--the damn car horn was blaring all the while I was leaning on the bong and smoking, not having a fucking clue. So there you have it. There's the etymology of 42. Someone called the cops to say there was a car out front with its horn blatting nonstop, driving all the hearing people crazy. They arrested me for possession, and when I told my story in court, they all laughed at me. Because, in hindsight, I guess it was pretty funny. And now, every time I tell that story, people laugh. Especially Deaf people. And that's the story. That's how it started. I'm the original FUCK UP. The originator of the 42 sign. My name should be in the American Sign Language Dictionary under the entry for 42. It should say: ‘Neologism for cannabis, coined by Robert Dunn.' Imagine the royalties! If I had a nickel for every time a Deaf person signed 42, I'd be rich! If I had a nickel bag for every time, hell, I'd be swimming in 42!"

*This essay originally appeared in Two Hawks Quarterly


Paul Hostovsky's tenth book of poetry, Late for the Gratitude Meeting, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books. He has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and braille instructor. He wants you to know that, though he used to indulge in 42 quite enthusiastically during his formative years (a little too enthusiastically, truth be told), he has not touched the stuff in 28 years. But who's counting? (He is.)