Letter of comment (1984)
Letter published in I Stand Corrected: More On Language by William Safire. New York: Time Books, 1984, p. 390.
"Tsk "or "tisk" is neither a word nor a cluck. I remember when we read comics aloud in the '40s how funny it was when someone pronounced "tsk, tsk" phonetically, because I knew very well that the word was merely an attempt to duplicate a sound my grandmother used to make when she might otherwise have said "land sakes" or "dear me" or "tut tut." She did it by pressing her tongue against the gum just behind her top front teeth and drawing it quickly back, just as you might do to get rid of something stuck between your teeth. Try it, it's more of a rapid hiss in reverse than a cluck. I always thought a cluck was the popping sound you make when you make a vacuum between your tongue and the roof of your mouth and then force them apart.
Walter Darby Bannard
Princeton, New Jersey