Mexican X-plainer: Chiclets & Aztecs

Among the handful of English words ultimately derived from Nahuatl is “Chiclet,” a brand of chewing gum named after the sap of the Manilkara chicle, a tropical tree native to Mesoamerica. In fact, several species of Manikara produce the substance, including the Manikara zapota, commonly known as the “sapodilla” — both adaptations of the Nahuatl name for the trees: tzapotl.

Manikara zapota

The Nahuas called the organic sap of these plants “tzictli,” meaning something like “sticky stuff” (note derivatives tzictilia, “solder” or “glue together,” and tzictiya “to get all gluey”). Tzictli was chewed as a way of keeping teeth clean and freshening breath, a custom that had been in use long before the Nahuas arrived in Mexico. In most Mayan languages, its name was a variation of cha’ — but Yukatek also has a synonym presumably borrowed from Nahuatl: sikte’.

Chicle sap

Though its use was common among girls and unmarried young women, elders warned the latter against walking around “tzictlahtlāza” or smacking their gum. That was a habit of “in cihuah tlahuelīlōqueh in mihtoah āhuiyanimeh” — “the evil women, those called prostitutes,” reports the Florentine Codex. (That last word literally means “joyful ones,” an interesting sobriquet for sex workers.)

I can’t quite get over the grumpy attitude the Mexica had about excessive public gum chewing among the youth. It feels pretty modern for stodgy Aztecs to complain, “Ahtle īnnemamachiliz, huel mīxmana: inic mantinemi in tziccuahcua, in ohtlica in tiyānquizco motzictlahtlāza!”

“[Gum addicts] have no shame! They walk around, right out in public, chewing their chicle on the roads, in the marketplace, smacking and popping!” (That’s from book 10 of the Florentine Codex.)

Granted, these are the same people that woke kids up in the middle of the night to make them sweep. Not fans of frivolity. Boys, men and married women, in fact, were expected to only chew tzictli in private.

A Nahua woman chews tzictli.

“Tzictli” had a dialectical variant, “chictli.” Spanish adopted it as “chicle” (which would become the general term in Mexico for all chewing gum). That name for the sap passed into English.

In 1900, the American Chicle Company launched its “Chiclet” chewing gum, whose main ingredient was chicle. The substance was used for the next 50 years by many companies with plants in Southern Mexico and Central America until replaced by a cheaper butadiene-based synthetic rubber.

Chiclets.

And in recent years, “chiclet” has come to refer to the size and shape of the Chiclet pieces of gum. Hence “chiclet keyboard” and the metaphorical sense of “teeth,” as in the slang phrase “spittin’ chiclets” (the action that comes right after getting punched in the mouth).

I think the Mexica would have approved of that latest stage in tzictli’s evolution.

For a deeper dive into chicle, I highly recommend this Mexicolore article on the subject by Dr. Jennifer Matthews.