This morning I used the term “on tenterhooks” and then wondered where it came from.
It’s a term that means painful anticipation or being kept in suspense, commonly used by English speakers to describe any situation of tension or anxiety while waiting.
I imagined something being suspended or hung up, waiting for something to happen— which is exactly how I felt when I said it. I imagined the hooks to be larger and more cruel than they actually were, perhaps as some form of medieval torture or punishment, like hanging someone on a wall or in mid air using hooks to hold the body. That is an indication of several truths about me: my own feelings at the time, my love of medieval history, and my horror author’s tendency toward macabre imagination.
As it turns out, I was overthinking that part.
A little research at etymonline.org and worldwidewords.org informed me that it’s a very old word from the early 14th century that relates to the preparation of cloth, particularly woven woollen fabric, by hanging it up on a frame known as a tenter to stretch, straighten the weave, and dry. Tenter hooks were bent nails that held the fabric in place on the frame.
By the early 1500s, people spoke of being on the tenters to express being in suspense or waiting anxiously. The phrase “on tenterhooks” appeared in print for the first time in Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random in 1748.
It is related to the word tent in that the word was used to describe the way in which hides, skins or coarse cloth were hung over a framework of poles to create a temporary dwelling, which then came to be called a tent.
Both tent and tenterhooks come to English from the Latin, tendere, meaning to stretch, via the old French word tente. They are related to the words tense, tension, intense and the phrase highly strung.
Although the ideas have come to be closely associated, tenterhooks and suspense are not related words.