On Tenterhooks

…was a phrase I wrote today, and then I realized that while I knew what the phrase meant (“a state of [painful] nervousness over a future event”), I didn’t know what a tenterhook was. I wasn’t even sure it was “tenTerhook” and not “tenDerhook.”

The T has it. A tenterhook is a long, crude-looking hook use to fasten cloth on a drying frame, aka a “tenter.” “Tenter” because of the angled blousing of fabric, presumably. No, just kidding, “tenter” is the wooden rack what stretches the woolens, derived from latin tendere, “to stretch.” (How close “tendere” to “tender”!)

Photo credit: https://ulearn2bu.wordpress.com

Tenters are not very comfortable-looking things; now that I have seen them, the phrase’s meaning makes sense. It’s not just anxiety; it’s being nailed between stages. The stretching gives it a mild crucifixion aspect. (Oh, just a mild crucifixion!)

Wikipedia tells us that “on tenterhooks” got its start as “on tenters,” courtesy the English playwright John Ford, who, in 1633, wrote a very depressing-sounding play called Broken Heart, which included the cynical line: “”There is no faith in woman. Passion, O, be contain’d! My very heart-strings Are on the tenters.”

Some 57 years later, The General History of Europe tweaked Ford’s bit of anguish and softened its blow with a business context et voila, the birth of a phrase still used today.

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