I have a question about the verb clack in the following paragraph taken from Sandkings by George R. R. Martin. In this paragraph, the protagonist, Simon Kress, is being shown a strange kind of creature by someone named Jala Wo.

“Note the colors, if you will,” Wo told him. She pointed to the creatures that swarmed over the nearest castle. One was scrabbling at the tank wall. Kress studied it. It still looked like an insect to his eyes. Barely as long as his fingernail, six-limbed, with six tiny eyes set all around its body. A wicked set of mandibles clacked visibly, while two long, fine antennae wove patterns in the air. Antennae, mandibles, eyes, and legs were sooty black, but the dominant color was the burnt orange of its armor plating.

What does he mean by "clacked visibly"? Clack is defined, for example, by Collins as

  1. to make or cause to make a sound like that of two pieces of wood hitting each other.

There is some disagreement over on Spanish SE about the meaning of clack in this context. (See, for example, https://spanish.stackexchange.com/posts/comments/32165?noredirect=1.) There are those who feel that "clack" is always about sound, and the visibility mentioned here just adds another type of perception. But there are others who feel that the "clacking" in this case is purely visual.

Is it possible for "clacking" not to include sound in its meaning?

In other words, does the "visibly" knock out the "audibly" that is normally understood by the word clacking?

  • I think the question here not so much about the meaning of clack, but more on the meaning of visibly.
    – user66974
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 7:30
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    I would say that this is straight-up poor writing. She could hardly point at the small insects that were swarming over some more distant castle because castles aren't close enough together that one could see features of that size on two of them simultaneously. A "clack" is a much louder sound than could be produced by something as small as a fingernail. And your confusion is justified: "visibly" is not an adverb that makes any positive contribution to the word "clack". If the most noticeable aspect of the clacking is visual, it must be a very quiet sound (so, again, not a clack). Commented May 14, 2017 at 9:50
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    The mandibles clacked. The action that caused this sound was clearly visible. Nothing wrong with the way it's written, save that some folks may over-analyze it.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 11:50
  • @DavidRicherby "A "clack" is a much louder sound than could be produced by something as small as a fingernail." - Have you ever heard a grasshopper? (Admittedly, they don't "clack" but they make plenty of noise!) Also, Kress was looking at an insect "on the tank wall," which is not necessarily at the same location as "the castle". You can identify a swarm of insects at a distance without seeing each individual insect in detail. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Click_beetle.
    – alephzero
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 13:21
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    @HotLicks - We are translating by committee (as part of a game) and there is a difference of opinion as to whether the author intended the word to convey a sound or didn't intend the word to convey a sound. This is not necessarily the same issue as whether or not Kress could hear the sound because the critter was so small and there was a certain amount of background noise. When one is choosing a word in another language, first one has to determine what the author intended. Commented May 14, 2017 at 22:12

4 Answers 4


The verb clack from the French claquer has a first meaning (1a), in the OED, of:

To chatter, prate, talk loquaciously. Said of chattering birds and human beings. (OED).

But it is OED sense 4a which is the onomatopoeic one, referring to sound:

a. intr. To make a sound intermediate between a clap and a crack, as a hard substance, such as a piece of wood, does in striking a hard surface. to clack (more commonly to crack) a whip.

1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement 485/1 The myll gothe, for I here the clacke clacke..car je os le clacquet clacquer or clacqueter.

1570 P. Levens Manipulus Vocabulorum sig. Aii/2, To Clacke, clangitare.

1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues Claquer, to clacke, to clap, to clatter.

1717 Dict. Rusticum (ed. 2) at Capriole, He [sc. a horse] Clacks or makes a Noise with them [sc. hind-legs].

1847 Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848) viii. 67 Whip clacking on the shoulders.

1875 W. D. Howells Foregone Concl. 60 A woman clacking across the flags in her wooden heeled shoes.

To me this is an onomatopoeic word which entirely relates to sound and I have seen nothing which suggests its use in the absence of sound. Even so, I see no reason why clacking should not take place "visibly". I suppose a person could be seen "visibly shouting", though the "shouting" would be primarily audible to anyone in the immediate locality of it.

  • 2
    I'm not sure what you mean by "has the principal meaning", cited to the OED. The OED doesn't give "principal meanings"; rather, it lists all meanings that a word has had through time. I would certainly dispute that the meaning you give for "clack" is the most common in modern usage. Commented May 14, 2017 at 9:40
  • @DavidRicherby It is the meaning given as sense 1a. That is the only reason I used the word "principal". The range of dates etc. of the examples of the use of the various sentences does not clarify why any one of them would be "principal". I have therefore changed the word to "first".
    – WS2
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 10:10
  • It's also worth noting that the OED entry has not been updated since 1889. The earliest use ("talk loquaciously") may well be obsolescent now if not obsolete. It seems to me that senses 1 2 and 3 are certainly far less common than 4 -- which is why the Martin quote seems odd.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 10:44
  • @AndrewLeach The sense 1. term was certainly widely used in Norfolk when I was a child in the 1950s, and I have certainly heard it used there since then.
    – WS2
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 12:20
  • @AndrewLeach My father, who grew up in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in the 1950s-60s also occasionally uses "clack" in this sense. But I don't think I've ever heard a younger person say it. Commented May 14, 2017 at 13:39

Yes, clack refers to a sound:

the short loud sound made when two hard objects hit each other:

  • the clack of high heels on the floor
  • the clack of her knitting needles


In the OP's sentence visible means:

  • apparent; manifest; obvious:


Words can be used figuratively. To sum up, clack literally refers to a sound, visibly is used to emphasise the action.

  • Are you saying that it is fair to translate it to a verb that neither suggests, implies nor describes any sound whatsoever? Commented May 14, 2017 at 6:59
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    @aparente001 - words can be used figuratively. To sum up, clack literally refers to a sound, visibly is used to emphasise the action.
    – user66974
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 7:24
  • @aparente001 Kress can see the mandibles striking each other, and hear the sound they produce.
    – alephzero
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 13:23

I think there's a bit of ambiguity in the original work.

The definition of the verb "clack" generally requires sound a to be present. It can describe creating sound like striking objects together (without an obvious single source), or it can refer to the actual repeated striking of objects together to make a sound.

But I don't think it would be too great of a linguistic stretch to extend the meaning a little further to describe the striking together of objects in a way you'd expect to make a clacking sound, even if that sound wasn't actually apparent. For instance, you can easily imagine the clacking sound that should go with this video of a girl running a stick along a wooden fence, even though there's no sound. While I don't think "clack" would be my preferred verb to use about what she was doing (as is clear from my choice of "running along" above), I'd have no problem understanding somebody else using it that way (even to describe the silent video).

In the quoted passage, the objects that are "clacking visibly" are the mandibles of a tiny insect-like creature. The word "visibly" tells us that the mandibles striking together can be seen by the character that is observing the creature. What's not completely clear is if the mandibles are actually making an audible clacking sound.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine a very small insect making a noise loud enough to justify the word "clack" (which more often describes the sound of large things like industrial machinery or train wheels). Perhaps the sound isn't actually audible, but in the mind of the character who's looking closely at it, the mandibles striking together seem like they should make a clacking sound (if they were larger, or if the listener was close enough). The author's intention is not completely clear.


Language evolves. If communication is successful, language has served its purpose.

In the military, we used "clack" as a verb when referring to the handheld triggering device for M18 Claymore mines. This device was referred to as a "clacker" because of the sound it made when using it.

So a typical usage as a verb might be "Always clack it 3 or 4 times to make sure it goes off".

  • Thanks. But we need the conclusion! When you clack it 3 or 4 times, is there a sound each time you clack it? Or is it a silent priming, to prepare for the action that has a sound connected to it? Commented May 14, 2017 at 21:33
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    It makes a clacking sound each time it is clacked. Commented May 15, 2017 at 0:58

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