Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Tenterhooks

I was asked about the source of this phrase and did a little research.
A tenter is a frame on which cloth is stretched during manufacture, so that it may dry evenly. The frame is outfitted with sharp hooks or bent nails that hold the cloth stretched. These hooks, you will not be surprised to learn, are called tenterhooks.

Cloth-stretching being outside of most people's range of experience these days, tenterhook is rarely found except in the figurative expression on tenterhooks, meaning 'in a state of uneasy suspense or painful anxiety'.

Tenterhooks is used in similar figurative expressions from the sixteenth century onwards: Sir Thomas More and Byron both used the word meaning 'something that causes painful anxiety', and the fuller expression to stretch on tenterhooks 'to strain beyond a normal limit' was in use until the nineteenth century. The bare form on tenterhooks itself is first recorded in the mid-eighteenth century, in Smollett: "I left him upon the tenterhooks of impatient uncertainty" (Roderick Random).

Some other examples: "He felt quite sure that his old friend was simply on tenterhooks of anxiety to repair the almost irreparable error of dividing two whom Nature had striven to join together in earlier days" (Thomas Hardy, Woodlanders); "Still, just then, being on tenterhooks, he desired the female's room more than her company" (Joyce, Ulysses); "Mick sat on tenterhooks, leaning forward in his chair, glaring at her almost hysterically: and whether he was more anxious out of vanity for her to say Yes! or whether he was more panic-stricken for fear she should..." (D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover).

The literal tenterhook is first found in the late fifteenth century. Tenter is from the fourteenth century, probably borrowed from a Middle French word meaning 'to stretch'.

Source: The Mavens' Word of the Day

1 comment:

audrophenia said...

Perfect. Because I actually was on tenterhooks to find out what tenterhooks are.