On Tenterhooks

For some reason this idiom, meaning ‘nervously waiting to find out what is going to happen’, appears in my novel. At that time I believed the phrase was, ‘on tenderhooks’. The fact that a mind as great as mine could have been confused in this way can only mean that the idea behind the phrase is dark and mysterious. But tenters and hooks were once a part of one of the trades that in the C18th and C19th helped transform this little island the most powerful force in the world. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about the wool trade.

After it has been woven, woollen cloth still contains oil from the fleece, mixed with dirt. It was traditionally cleaned in a fulling mill, but then it had to be dried carefully or it would shrink and crease. So the lengths of wet cloth were stretched on wooden frames, and left out in the open for some time. This allowed them to dry and straightened their weave. These frames were the tenters, and the tenter hooks were the metal hooks used to fix the cloth to the frame.

In the good old days, these tenters would have been a common sight. It is easy, in this context, to understand why describing somebody as being ‘on tenterhooks’ means that they are in an state of anxious suspense, stretched like the cloth on the tenter.

However it is not easy to understand, in any context, why WordPress has deemed it fit to suggest ‘Monday Night Football’ as a tag for this post.

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12 Comments

Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

12 responses to “On Tenterhooks

  1. That is a mystery! Hahaha!
    I had never heard of that idiom in my part of the world, but I have often found myself, “on tenterhooks….”

  2. Perhaps it’s because “Monday Night Football” was supposed to be a really good tight game from two strong and evenly matched teams.. Leading to tense and nail-biting finishes… Though hardly ever the case anymore due to parity. Just a guess!!

  3. I’ve always loved that phrase. Thanks for the lesson – makes total sense, Ed!

  4. Consider me impressed. I’ve used the expression many times over the years and I have to admit I’d never known the derivation. I think I made a lazy assumption that it was something to do with The Spanish Inquisition (As in no body expects the…), but I never thought much beyond that.
    Many thanks Oh Giver of Wisdom.

  5. Rob

    did you write this because I wrote ‘tenderhooks’ like a fool?

  6. katesense

    I’ve always found the history of words to be fascinating! Good read : )

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