Vocabulary Tips: On Tenterhooks

On Tenterhooks

The phrase ‘on tenterhooks’ is common in English. However, it is also one of the most widely misspelled phrases around (it even came in at number two in one survey). But what does it mean to be on tenterhooks? What exactly is a ‘tenterhook’? And how do you avoid errors when using this phrase? In this post, we explain everything you need to know.

What ‘On Tenterhooks’ Means

When we say we are ‘on tenterhooks’, we mean we are feeling tense or agitated due to anticipating a future event. For example:

I’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for my exam results.

This would mean we find waiting for results hard to bear! But where does the phrase come from? And what is a ‘tenterhook’?

The Origins of Tenterhooks

The old-fashioned term ‘tenter’ referred to a frame used for drying and stretching cloth. As such, a ‘tenterhook’ was a hook used to stretch something on one of these frames.

A tenter frame in action.
(Photo: Clem Rutter/wikimedia)

You won’t see many tenter frames around these days. But if you time travelled back to a wool-making town between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, they’d be a common sight. The phrase ‘on the tenters’, meanwhile, first appeared in the seventeenth century. This then evolved into ‘on tenterhooks’ in the same way we use it today.

Its meaning was probably more obvious at the time, as people were used to seeing cloth literally being held in suspense by tenterhooks. The jump to metaphorical tension or suspense was therefore a natural one.

On Tenterhooks vs. On Tenderhooks?

One common error made when using this phrase is to write ‘tenderhooks’ instead of ‘tenterhooks’. This may result from mishearing the term when spoken. Or it might just be because ‘tender’ is a familiar English word, while ‘tenter’ is no longer used except in ‘tenterhooks’.

We’ll admit that the image of a ‘tender’ hook is intriguing, though. Perhaps it is less pointy than other hooks? Or a hook for attaching yourself to a loved one? The possibilities are endless.

But until someone does invent a ‘tenderhook’, it will remain an error. So we suggest sticking to the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’ if you’re trying to express anticipation or suspense.

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