Q&A: Tenterhooks or tenderhooks?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're hooked on a feeling…

Q: Hi AWC, what will we discuss today? I’m on tenderhooks here!

A: You’re on what?

Q: You know, tenderhooks.

A: Nope. You’re thinking of “tenterhooks”.

Q: “Tenter”? What is a tenter?

A: We’ll get to that. You didn’t also wonder why the hooks were “tender”?

Q: I guess I always assumed it had something to do with feeling tender from the hook, although I’m not sure why.

A: Well, let’s just say goodbye to those tenderhooks – they simply don’t exist. To be “on tenterhooks” is the phrase we want. Described by Macquarie Dictionary as to be “in a state of painful suspense of anxiety”.

Q: Okay, but what is a tenterhook?

A: It’s a small hook (or bent nail) that is used to hold cloth onto a tenter. And before you ask, a tenter is a wooden frame on which cloth is dried during manufacturing.

Q: I guess this is an old thing, yeah?

A: Yep. Cloth was hooked to tenters as far back as the 1300s. The Latin “tentus”  means to stretch – it’s where we get this word and words like “extend”, “tendon”, “tension” and “tenuous”. Also the camping variety of “tent” – stretching material out to create a portable shelter.

Q: That reminds me of the last time two groups of us went camping. Everyone was so on edge the entire time and we couldn’t figure out why. Eventually, we realised what it was. 

A: What?

Q: We were two tents!

A: Groan.

Q: Haha. Anyway, tell me specifically about “tenterhooks”?

A: The functional word “tenterhooks” didn’t turn up till the late 1400s, and the suspenseful figurative phrase was at first “to be on tenters” – seen from around the 1530s.

Q: Another time we went camping, we didn’t secure our tent pegs in the strong winds. We woke up on tenters. They weren’t very happy.

A: It wasn’t until 1748 that we see the first use of “to be on tenterhooks” in that exact suspenseful phrase. 

Q: Is it always painful?

A: Well, not as painful as having actual hooks in your skin. It’s meant to represent being strained or stretched with unease and nervous anticipation.

Q: So, are tenters still used today?

A: Yeah, you’ll still find the term in textiles production machinery – although there is no longer any need for the hooked nails of the past. They live on purely through the saying. By the way, another name for a cloth frame used today is a “temple”.

Q: Why do many people say “tenderhooks” instead of “tenterhooks”?

A: Well, for starters, the word “tenter” is fairly rare. Maybe it’s easier to imagine some kind of abattoir situation – where tender meat hangs on hooks. One might assume that YOU are that meat, in that you are “left hanging” with anticipation on these hooks. Who knows.

Q: I think of being in a nervous state as being quite “tender” – so it seemed to make more sense in that regard.

A: Yes, good point. English can be a cruel mistress – leading you down paths that seem to make sense but actually go nowhere. The term “eggcorn” is used for mistaken terms or words that persist partly because they sound more logical than the actual version. A classic example is “for all intents and purposes” being mistakenly written as “for all intensive purposes”.

Q: More tents!

A: It’s quite a gathering.

Q: Anything else to add?

A: Well yes actually. The word “tenter” lives on largely in place names across Britain – where much of the original cloth production took place. In particular “Tenterfield” – named after the open fields where many tenters would dry the cloth. We even have our own namesake town of Tenterfield here in Australia – inland from Byron Bay.

Q: Interesting. Hey, one last thing. Did you know that you can’t run through a campsite – you can only “ran”?

A: Huh? Why?

Q: Because it’s past tents!

A: Where did we put those hooks…

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