Tenterhooks or Tenderhooks?

What could this week’s topic be? Are you on tenterhooks? What the heck are tenterhooks? 


Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #396


First, let's get one thing straight: you are on TENTERhooks, not TENDERhooks.

To be on tenterhooks is to be filled with painful or anxious anticipation or suspense, such as when you’re waiting for the result of an important medical test.

Where We Get the Word Tenterhooks

To figure out what a tenterhook is, we have to know that long ago manufacturers kept freshly milled woolen cloth from shrinking while it dried by stretching it on a wooden frame called a tenter. It comes from the Latin word tentus, which means “to stretch.”

The word "tenterhooks" comes from the metal hooks that manufacturers used to stretch wool on a tenter while it dried.

The 1845 Encyclopaedia Metropolitana or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge, Volume 1, describes a tenter as “a number of vertical posts fixed to the ground, with a continuous horizontal fixed rail at the top as long as the piece of cloth; there are also other horizontal rails which are fitted between the upright posts … both the upper and lower rails are driven full of tenterhooks; on these the lists of the cloth are fastened, after which the lower or movable rail is pressed downwards to the full breadth of the cloth, and then secured in its place by the pins. In this state, the pieces are left to dry.”

So a tenterhook is a metal hook that holds the cloth in place on the tenter, and the frames were set out in fields so the wool could dry. 

The Saturday Magazine, Volume 12 from 1838 describes the process like this:

“When the cloth first comes from the weaver, it is in a very rough unsightly state, and contains a quantity of oil … The next operation is ‘scouring,’ which is performed in the fulling-mill, the cloth being soaked in an alkaline ley and beaten by machinery; it is then well rinced with pure water and hung on the tenter-frames to dry.”

Maps Used to Show Tenter-Fields

According to Michael Quinion of the World Wide Words website, tenters were so numerous and common that old maps of England sometimes called out certain areas as tenter-fields. 

In this literal sense, the earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1480, and the earliest full phrase I can read without butchering is from 1518: Her nails as sharp as tenterhooks.

How Tenterhooks Got Its Current Meaning

The figurative meaning seems to stem from the idea that the drying cloth is being strained and stretched by the tenterhooks, and by analogy, someone who is strained or stretched to wits end is on tenterhooks like the cloth. The first reference for this figurative sense is more than a couple hundred years later in 1748: I left him upon the tenterhooks of impatient uncertainty.

The OED says it is now a rare or obscure saying, but people also used to say they were “on tenters” or “on the tenter” to mean the same thing as “on tenterhooks.”

So remember, You aren’t on tenderhooks, you’re on tenterhooks.

Tenter image via Clem Rutter at Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

You May Also Like...

The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.