Vocabulary Tips: On Tenterhooks
  • 3-minute read
  • 1st August 2018

Vocabulary Tips: On Tenterhooks

The phrase “on tenterhooks” is quite common in English. However, it is also one of the most widely misspelled phrases around (it even came in at number two in a British 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 that we are feeling tense or agitated due to anticipating a future event. For example, we might use it in a sentence as follows:

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

This means that we find waiting for the results hard to bear! But where does the phrase come from?

The Origins of Tenterhooks

“Tenterhooks” comes from the old-fashioned term “tenter.” This was a frame used for drying and stretching cloth, so a “tenterhook” was a hook used on one of these frames.

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

You won’t see many tenter frames around these days. However, if you time traveled back to a wool-making town in seventeenth-century England, they’d be a common sight.

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Tenters were actually used as far back as the fourteenth century, but we picked the seventeenth century as our time travel destination because this is when the phrase “on the tenters” first appears.

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.

Tenterhooks vs. Tenderhooks?

One common error people make when using this phrase is to write “tenderhooks” instead of “tenterhooks.” This may be a result of mishearing the term when spoken. Or it might just be because “tender” is a familiar English word. Unfortunately, “tenderhooks” is not a real word at all.

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

But until someone does invent a “tender hook,” we recommend sticking to the phrase “on tenterhooks” if you are trying to express anticipation or suspense.

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