gummy

Could you chew gummy things if you were entirely gummy?

Elephants go through several sets of teeth in their lifetimes, and when the last ones are gone, they may starve to death, as they’re not able to chew the plants they eat on their gums. Would they be able to chew gum, I wonder?

Gums and gum may seem to have some things in common: they’re both soft, after all, and both are thought of as involved somehow in chewing. The word gummy is itself rather gummy: a voiced stop /g/ is softer than a voiceless one /k/ – somewhat as gums are to teeth – and the mm is surely soft and looks more than a little like teeth or gums. Granted, sticky has a certain sticky something that gummy doesn’t capture but that gum has, but gummy is gummier in every way than viscid, which is nonetheless a term one may apply to gum, though not to the gums.

But is the relation between gum and gums a gimme? Not at all. Although both are gummy, the etymology is gummed up. From Greek comes the word κόμμι kommi referring to the secretion of certain trees – sticky, chewy perhaps, and soluble, unlike resin. It moved into Latin as cummi and gummi, which became Italian gomma and French gomme. Meanwhile, from Germanic roots came the Old English góma to refer to soft tissues inside the mouth, and particularly the ones at the base of the teeth. So the two have gum together, I mean come together, in form in English since the Middle English period.

You may be interested to know that gummy referring to toothlessness has been in use in English for little over a century, as far as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, but gummy meaning chewy and sticky like gum from a tree has been in use in English since the 1300s at least. I must admit I wonder, though, whether both kinds of gummy aren’t intended in this quotation from 1520: “Her lewde lyppes twayne They slauer, men sayne, Lyke a ropye rayne, A gummy glayre.”

Speaking of lewd and lurid things, there is another sense of gummy, meaning ‘gummatous’. What does that mean? Of the nature of, or resembling, a gumma. What is a gumma? A syphilitic tumour so named due to the gummy nature of its contents. In other words, this gummy has gotten chewed up and blown into a bubble that, come full circle, pops.

So there is nothing elevated or lovely or lofty about gummy, then, is there? Hmmm. Poets and authors of literature have not always seemed to agree. Here is perhaps a bit more of gummy than you can bear:

Time the slant lightning, whose thwart flame, driven down,
Kindles the gummy bark of fir or pine
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

Sing on! sing on! and Bacchus will be here
Astride upon his gorgeous Indian throne,
And over whimpering tigers shake the spear
With yellow ivy crowned and gummy cone,
While at his side the wanton Bassarid
Will throw the lion by the mane and catch the mountain kid!
—Oscar Wilde, “The Burden of Itys”

Now while the earth was drinking it, and while
Bay leaves were crackling in the fragrant pile,
And gummy frankincense was sparkling bright
’Neath smothering parsley, and a hazy light
Spread greyly eastward, thus a chorus sang
—John Keats, Endymion

They were both in the prime of youth, or even in that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun.
—Virginia Woolf, Monday or Tuesday

And whenever he emptied his tumbler of punch
He ’d not rest till he fill’d it full again.
The boozing, bruising Irishman,
The ’toxicated Irishman—
The whiskey, frisky, rummy, gummy, brandy, no dandy Irishman.
—William Maginn, “The Irishman and the Lady”

Hmm, well, yes, that last one is not so lofty, now, is it? Gummy may be vivid and viscid, thick and sticky and in a particular way poetic, but in the end it is, after all, gummy, with all that comes with that. It sticks to its origins.

One response to “gummy

  1. What do you call a bear without any teeth?

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