What are mouthing and mock biting?

I’m trying to understand what mouthing and mock biting mean. Here is the context — it describes a monkey reconciliation behavior:

After a fight, stump-tailed macaques have ritualized reconciliation behaviors: the subordinate presents his rump to the dominant individual that acknowledges the gesture. The dominant male may embrace and kiss the subordinate, which will respond with “teeth chattering” and “lip smacking,” both signs of submission. Finally, the subordinate offers a hand to the dominant individual who will softly mouth or “mock bite” the hand. After this interaction, the bond is purportedly restored and the dominance hierarchy is reinforced (de Waal 1993; Srivastava 1999).

Source: Primate Fact Sheet on the Stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides) at http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/stump-tailed_macaque/behav

Since the question has been downvoted and put on hold, maybe because it sounds too obvious to native English speakers, it might be useful to add that:

  • I did not find anything about these expressions.
  • When translated word-by-word into French, neither expression makes any sense.*

I therefore surmise that since a direct calque into French makes no sense for these terms, they must have some special non-literal/idiomatic meaning that is greater than the sum of their individual words.

My guess

The closest I can find in French for mock bite seems to be mordiller, meaning a serie of gentle bites. I could make out the sense, though I have never seen any simians (like a chimpanzee ape or a macaque monkey) doing that.

To mouth seems to mean in this context “to put one’s hand in one’s mouth” but I doubt that applies here in the case because a macaque’s hand is quite big.


* As an aside, if anyone happens to know a good French equivalent for these terms, whatever they really mean in English, I'd be very interested to learn these. But I can’t translate these into French until I learn what they actually mean in English.

  • 1
    Guillaume, thank you for returning to your question to edit it. I have taken the liberty of further grooming it to make sure it is on topic. Having done that, I have taken the liberty of reöpening it for you; I hope you do not mind. If in my edits I have somehow misconstrued your underlying question or focus, please do not hesitate to edit it again to compensate for this.
    – tchrist
    Jun 3, 2017 at 15:30
  • @tchrist Thanks a lot for your edit, it's much better! (Thanks also for the kindness of your comment!)
    – JinSnow
    Jun 4, 2017 at 13:18
  • Mouth means "to take into the mouth". I don't know if you've ever looked at a simian hand but it's not a spherical object that's impossible to fit into the mouth - it has fingers, flaps of skin, bumps, and edges.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 21, 2022 at 12:24

2 Answers 2


Neither mouthing nor mock biting are common English terms, which is probably why the author used quotation marks and two alternative phrasings to try to express the action.

Dog trainers will describe bite inhibition where the animal closes their jaw without pressure. This can be used as part of social play, or in establishing dominance hierarchy (as in the original context). This video shows a dog nuzzling and softly biting an owner's hand.

Tangentially, there is a phrase relating to dominance hierarchy which has crossed from animal sociology (specifically of birds) into general use in English: pecking order.


The subordinate will bite the hand of the dominant one without the intention to cause harm or … begin digesting it! It's a feigned bite, a fake one, to play, demonstrate attachment, submission, acknowledgement, etc.

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