Here's a sentence I made up.

"The zombies stumbled towards her ____ing their toothless gums."

I can't use 'gnashing' because of its definition.




gerund or present participle: gnashing

grind (one's teeth) together

Google Dictionary

So what were the zombies doing?


7 Answers 7


I think the normal term is "champing".

Generally, far as I can tell, champing is where the mouth works and chews at either nothing, or at a specified something (chewing tobacco, gum, cigar, bridle-bit...) that will not be damaged or destroyed.

Unfortunately, while I can find quotes, I can't get a dictionary reference which doesn't include teeth, though the canonical "champing at the bit" clearly doesn't involve teeth, since a horse's bit goes into the mouth behind the horse's teeth.

he smacked his lips and champed his gums while muttering

-- The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London, 1915.

she was an old hag in a great tremendous poke-bonnet, ambling along backroads at twilight and champing her gums and spitting at people she passed.

-- God Bless the Devil, by James R Aswell, 1940.

A tropical field rat, gnawing a hole in a cardboard box, recently scampered off with Boardman's lower set of false teeth. "I'm in an awful fixth," the Seabee explained as he chomped-champed his gums. "What good will my uppersth be without th' lowersth?

-- Marine Corps Chevron, by Sgt. A. D. Hawkins, 25 Nov 1944

I gave only one look at the aged grandmother: wrinkled, bony, hunched, almost bald, toothlessly champing her granulated lips, her eyes red and gummy"

-- The Journeyer, by Gary Jennings, 1984.

Mother is there and eating well -- I know that, having seen her at it -- greedily sucking in her thin ragged lips, champing toothlessly away, her eyes dull and lustreless

-- The Time: Night, by Li͡udmila Petrushevskai͡a, Sally Laird, 1992.

an old mottled Chinese nonya champed her gums at the open door

-- The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy, by Anthony Burgess, 1992.

The crone champed her gums together and nodded brusquely

-- Forged by Fire, by Janine Cross, 2008.

a toothless middle-aged lady whose wide mouth seemed to be the only mobile part of her enormous face. She had a habit of champing their lips while she sat silent

-- Dance Of The Apprentices, by Edward Gaitens, 2010.

The old woman suddenly lurched, champing her gums irritably.

-- Reading the Sauce Bottle, by Martin Stuart, 2013.

  • Yes, I like 'champ' it has a rather unpleasant sound to it as befits zombies. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 17:22

Frankly, I'd stick with gnashing. It is true that the standard meaning refers to teeth, but "gnashing their gums" makes the point that they are using their mouths as if they had teeth, and seems a reasonable literary device.

  • Indeed, the incongruous nature of "gnashing gums" seems well suited to zombies, who have also been known to do other incongruous things such as carrying their heads in their hands.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 4:47

'Mashing' one's gums is a usage I've come across, but it's rare:

The things they do sometimes stick in your mind forever – like when my [niece] was little and on a train with a very elderly man who was mashing his gums ...

[Don't mess around with my Thermomix!!]

  • Yes, I was considering that. In the end it sounded too benign for zombies, or a bit too much like 'masticating.' I don't want to suggest they are chewing. Rather that, if they had teeth, they would definitely be gnashing them in an intimidating way. Thanks for breaking the ice though. Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 18:50
  • Even zombies don't mess with Thermomixes. Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 18:53
  • The problem with 'mashing' is that it conjures images of their gums becoming soft and spongy (like mashed potato). Which is good if that's what you're going for.
    – dwjohnston
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 0:27

How about just "grinding" (taken directly from the dictionary definition of "gnashing", minus the part about the teeth)?

  • This. Sometimes, trying to find a fancy word for the sake of being a fancy word is wasting effort better spent elsewhere. Sometimes the most basic words fit best. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 8:20

Tough one. We say "smacking their lips" and "gnashing their teeth" but so few people are intimidating without teeth... I'm not sure we have a scary work for that. You could rework the sentence to avoid the problem. Ex: "The zombies stumbled towards her, their toothless mouths hideously gaping and grimacing."


you could go with mashing or smacking their toothless gums together, but how about changing it to eerily grinning through their toothless gums


Revealing. You could include an adverb, e.g. grotesquely revealing.

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