The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


The tearing sound of the handkerchief came to me. She tore it with her teeth, slowly, time after time. --PHILIP MARLOWE (of Vivian Regan), The Big Sleep

Body movement. The act of closing one's jaws tightly to cut, grip, grasp, or tear with the teeth, as in a. eating a Big Mac sandwich, b. clenching the jaws in frustration and anger, or c. inflicting pain.

Usage: Our animal nature shows clearly in the eagerness with which we may bite our enemies. In New York City, e.g., ca. 1,500 human beings report having been bitten by other humans each year (Conn and Silverman 1991:86). (N.B.: This is five times greater than the reported figure for rat bites [Wurman 1989:177].) In 1981, in Norfolk, Virginia, a traveling salesman was convicted of attacking a woman and biting off her nose.

Anatomy. The muscles of mastication are the masseter and temporalis (which close the mouth); and the lateral and medial pterygoids and anterior belly of the digastric (which open the mouth).

Biology1. "As soon as a young mouse has its teeth, it will turn around and try to bite anything which pinches its tail" (Scott 1975:7). 2. "Don't assume your dog won't bite. The most common statement from dog owners after a carrier has been bitten is, 'He's/She's never bitten anyone before!'" (flyer distributed in 2000 by the U.S. Post Office).

Evolution. Along with their role in chewing and eating, our remote ancestors' jaws, jaw muscles, and teeth played a defensive role: the face was used as a weapon (as is dramatically the case today, e.g., in crocodiles, gorillas, and grizzly bears).

Media1. In their televised June 28, 1997 boxing rematch, challenger Mike Tyson committed a major foul by biting off a one-inch piece of Evander Holyfield's ear and spitting it onto the floor of the ring. Two points were deducted from his score, but in the third round Tyson tried to bite Holyfield's other ear and was disqualified from the competition. 2. On June 9, 2001, San Francisco Chronicle executive editor Phil Bronstein (husband of actress Sharon Stone) was attacked and bitten on the foot at the Los Angeles Zoo by a Komodo dragon. "A zookeeper had asked Bronstein [who was on a private tour because he ". . . had always wanted to see a Komodo dragon up close"] to remove his white tennis shoes to keep the 5-foot-long reptile from mistaking them for the white rats it is fed, Bronstein told the Chronicle" (Anonymous 2001G:A2).

Neuro-notes. The muscles of biting are innervated by mandibular branches of the trigeminal nerve (cranial V, an emotionally sensitive special visceral nerve). Acting through the trigeminal's motor nucleus, emotional stimuli associated, e.g., with anger, may cause the jaw muscles to contract in uncontrollable biting movements.
Antonym: JAW-DROOP.