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A Slip of the Lip--Or Is It the Gum?

As a mystery reader and writer, I’ve noticed something for many years now: most of us folks who put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard are pretty clueless when it comes to forms of tobacco that aren’t inhaled.

There are basically two kinds of tobacco that don’t go into your lungs (I’ve going to exclude vaping, because I have no idea of what it really is other than something that looks like you’re sucking on a Bic). The first is chewing. Now, chewing tobacco comes in two basic forms: the plug and the leaf. Leaves are sold in a foil-lined packet. Red Man is an example of one brand. In order to use this project, you reach into the bag, take out an appropriately sized hunk of leaves, and stuff them into the back of your mouth. A plug works about the same way, although in this case the leaves are compressed into a much harder form—think a nasty tasting, stale candy bar. You cut off a chunk with a knife or, if you’re a hard soul, bite it off. It goes into the same place as the loose leaves—into that back corner of your mouth. Then you start to chewing on it, occasionally spitting the juice, because swallowing it is nasty. When you see baseball players with their cheek all pooched out, they’re chewing tobacco.

Snuff is a different animal, or at least in a different form. It is finely ground tobacco that comes in a round tin that people who use it stick into their back pocket. A dedicated snuff user will develop a whitish ring in the back pocket of his Wranglers commensurate to the shape of the tin, which leads me to a tried and true cowboy joke that I can reveal at another time. Using snuff requires that you open the can, take a pinch between your thumb and forefinger and put it between your lip and your gum.

See Walt Garrison, famous cowboy (and Cowboy) on the subject here:

The look is different than a tobacco chewer’s bulging cheek. It’s smaller and hence less visible. I’ve known some cowgirls whom it took me months to realize that they imbibed; the telltale fleck of tobacco on her teeth was the only clue.

Now, each type of tobacco has its own vocabulary. Plugs or leaves are chewed, and snuff is dipped. Ball players and farmers might chew tobacco, while oil well drillers and cowboys might dip snuff. Just as they have specific verbs, they also have nouns. That which is chewed is a plug or a chew; that which is dipped is a dip. Sometimes folks refer to a chew as a “chaw,” a word which has held that meaning since it was first recorded in print in 1709.

Therein lies the problem for unsuspecting authors. Nine out of ten times an under-informed writer will make a statement such as the following: He pulled a tin out of his back pocket and carefully placed a chaw between his cheek and gum. Ain’t no such way, people. Chaws are chewed, dips are dipped, and never the twain shall meet. Just don’t swaller either of ‘em.

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