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One of life’s minor irritations is having to prise a half-solidified wad of chewing gum off the sole of your shoe because some unthinking slob spat it onto the pavement. This scourge of the street could be avoided if other governments were as draconian as the Singaporean authorities: they allow the import solely of medicinal gum, which has to be prescribed by a doctor, and impose a hefty ban for spitting gum out on the street.
But the habit of chewing resin or gum of some kind goes back several millennia. In 1993 archaeologists in Sweden found three gobbets of 9,000-year-old sweetened birch resin that had clearly been chewed by a human—in fact, by a teenager. And the word gum itself can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt.
It started its journey to English in the form we would write as kemai.
(That first syllable kem– already shows a connection with the modern masticatory habit: the g of our gum and the k of kemai can be considered phonetically two sides of the same coin: g is the “voiced” counterpart of k. Try saying the /k/sound of came on its own and then the /g/ sound of game to appreciate their connectedness.)
But before it knuckled down to its role in modern English, kemai did a lot of travelling: its gap year turned into several centuries.
First, the Greeks adopted it in the form kommi (κόμμι), retaining the k sound of the Egyptian. Pre-classical Greeks were profoundly influenced by Egyptian civilization, borrowing, among other things, some of their sculptural conventions in the “Archaic” period, before they achieved the extraordinary naturalism that we associate with their greatest sculptures.
The historian Herodotus mentions kommi in his description of how the Egyptians embalmed bodies: “and when the seventy days have passed, they wash the body and wrap the whole of it in bandages of fine linen cloth, anointed with gum, which the Egyptians mostly use instead of glue”.
This is how the pharaohs would have been embalmed too.
From Greek it passed into Latin in the form cummi or gummi (classical Latin spelling, it seems, generally avoided the letter k). In late Latin the word changed to gumma, and was taken into Old French in the form gome. Thence it came into Middle English, in the prologue to Chaucer’s c1385 Legend of Good Women: “As for to speke of gomme or erbe or tre”. It makes another 14th century appearance, in the Wycliffite translation (before 1382) of the biblical Book of Jeremiah “Whether gumme is not in Galaad, or a leche is not there?”
That passage is better known nowadays in the King James wording: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”, balm being a resin with medicinal properties, and thus an image for something that heals spiritually.
That image found powerful expression in the African American spiritual, the chorus of which is:
There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.
Gum in English referred originally to “a viscous secretion of some trees and shrubs that hardens on drying but is soluble in water, and from which adhesives and other products are made”. (In that sense, it contrasts with resin, which is insoluble in water).
From the 15th century onwards, it developed several meanings as a verb, including the modern one of “fastening with gum or glue”, which led to the further image in the phrasal verb gum up of clogging something up.
That meaning seems first to have developed in the US: the OED’s first quote is from an 1874 report by an American mining engineer. Nearly 50 years later, another US quote encloses it in quotation marks to indicate the writer’s doubts about its uncertain status, as novelty or slang.
The US has also given us two words for different kinds of footwear incorporating gum in the sense of “India rubber”. Gumboots (1850) are rubber boots or wellington boots; the word seems to be rarely used in British and US English nowadays, but is still going strong in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Much more evocative is the word gumshoes (1863), meaning galoshes. It first appeared in 1906 in relation to detective work in A.H. Lewis’s Confessions of a Detective: “You’re d’gum-shoe guy I was waitin’ fer… It was Inspector Val tells me to lay for you“.
Nowadays of course, gum generally means chewing gum, an industry apparently worth 19 billion dollars a year. That shorthand use goes back as far as 1842: “[She] asked me if I didn’t want A piece of gum to chaw”. At that time the gum would have been spruce gum.
It was not until 1871 that gum developed in its modern form, using chicle, a natural gum from various types of Central-American trees. (Chicle is the Spanish the word for chewing gum.) In Argentine Spanish the English chewing gum has been phonetically adapted as chuenga (pronounced chwenga) to mean a kind of sweet that stuck like a limpet to your teeth.