Thursday, November 08, 2007

Love Me Tender, Tenterhook

Barry/Suttons Bay, MI: I overheard someone say that she was on tender hooks while waiting to see if her bid on a house was going to be accepted, but I’m not really sure what she meant. Any help?

First of all, if you looked for that phrase, you probably found nothing. What she said (or should have said) was that she was on tenterhooks. It’s easy to mishear D’s and T’s because they are formed in the same area of the mouth, with the tongue touching the teeth.

This takes us back to 15th century cloth makers. When cloth was milled and dyed, it was stretched on a wooden framework so that it would not shrink or lose shape as it dried. The wooden frame was called a tenter, perhaps deriving from the Latin tendere, to stretch.

The tenterhooks were the close-set hooks or nails set into the wooden framework to hold the cloth; they suspended the cloth in a uniform fashion. Eventually, tenterhooks acquired the figurative meaning of something causing excruciating suspense.

The cliché to be on tenterhooks was set in place by British novelist Tobias Smollett in his hilarious Roderick Random [1748]: “I left him upon the tenter-hooks of impatient uncertainty.”

I suppose that tender hook can be seen as a eggcorn*, since it would imply that even though you were metaphorically suspended, it wasn’t something that would cause you great harm; the hooks are tender. But tenterhooks is the correct word choice.

*[Geoffrey Pullum, The Language Log ]

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