For some reason, we humans like to chew. From babies to adults, ever since the Neolithic period (aka 6,000 years ago), it has been recorded that we have an odd, instinctual desire to chew. Whether it be birch bark tar, resin from the mastic tree, coca leaves, ginseng root, or even whale blubber, we didn’t really seem to care – it’s mostly been about the chewing, not the taste. Still, since many of us aren’t reaching for a stick of birch tar or a pack of Wrigley’s blubber, let’s have a look at the most commonly chewed modern substance, the chewing gum.
As we all know, chewing gum is, well, a compounding of the words chewing and gum. Chewing, being the noun of the verb chew and meaning ‘to crush and grind with the molars (teeth)’, came into English from the Old High German kiuwan, and was first noted around 1000AD in Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies (1884) by Thomas Wright and R. P. Wülcker (“Ruminatio, ciwung(chewing), uel edroc, uel aceocung.”); however, as a term specifically referring to a substance that is meant to be chewed and not swallowed, the first appearance can be found in The Medical and Physical Journal, which in 1800, mentions, “The habit of chewing.” The gum portion of our term, coming from the Old French gome, meaning ‘medicinal resin from the dried sap of plants’, can be traced all the way back to the Latin gummi, the Greek kommi, and even the ancient Egyptian term kemai: its first usage in this application comes from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, where, circa 1385, he writes: “As for to speak of gum or herb or tree.”
Looking at usage of terms, the first appearance of gum (something to be chewed) can be seen in an 11 April, 1842 edition of Spirit of Times (Philadelphia), which mentions: ” [She] asked me if I didn’t want A piece of gum to chaw.” The full-term chewing gum, which actually hearkens back to the action of its predecessor, chewing tobacco, first appeared in the 25 October 1850 edition of the Chicago Daily Democrat, where (likely in an advertisement) it was exclaimed: “Chewing gum! A new and superior preparation of Spruce Gum.”
Though many cultures around the globe developed their own substance to chew, the modern interpretation of chewing gum can be traced back to the United States, specifically an American Indian chewable resin featuring the sap of spruce trees. Early settlers adopted the idea, and, though made privately for many years, the first commercial chewing gum, The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum, was produced in 1848.
As far as modern gum is concerned, believe it or not, it is the product of a failed rubber substitute. Previously working as a secretary to the former Mexican President, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who chewed the local ayan and Aztec tree sap gum (chicle), inventor Thomas Adams attempted to use the chicle as a rubber substitute for tires. When the experiments failed, Adams realizing the potential from Santa Anna, cut the product into strips and marketed it as Adams New York Chewing Gum in 1871.
While chewing has always been a favourite human pastime, it was World War 2 that made chewing gum popular globally: receiving it as part of their ration, American troops frequently either traded it with locals or gave it as a small gift to civilians in Europe and the Pacific.
Though we may largely consider it a thoughtless leisure activity, there appear to be many benefits to chewing gum. First and foremost is, as we all know, oral health: chewing gum (especially specifically formulated varieties) can strengthen tooth enamel, reduce plaque, and enhance tooth remineralisation. Beyond the mouth though, chewing gum has been shown in studies to increase working memory, increase perception speed, decrease post-surgery recovery, and is even being considered as a treatment to GERD.
Finally, don’t worry about accidentally swallowing your gum, it won’t kill you, it doesn’t contain carcinogens, and it won’t stay in your stomach for 7 years. So, grab a stick of spearmint and chew on!