The expression "on tenterhooks" conveys a state of anxious anticipation or suspense, as if someone is waiting for a crucial outcome or event. The phrase can be applied in numerous contexts, whether someone is awaiting personal news or watching a nail-biting moment in a movie.
"On tenterhooks" means being in a state of anxious suspense or impatience.
The phrase "on tenterhooks" means someone is feeling very nervous and tense while waiting for something to happen.
Key aspects of the idiom's meaning:
The term "tenter" comes from the Latin word "tendere," which means to stretch. Tenterhooks were hooks used to keep woven cloth stretched while it dried to prevent it from shrinking. Imagine the cloth being stretched tight, and you can see why the phrase came to represent tension and suspense. The exact phrase appears to have been first used by Tobias Smollett in his novel “Roderick Random” in 1748. However, an earlier version of the phrase “on tenters” was used as far back as the 1500s to convey a similar meaning.
"...I suppose I should come out at any hour between midnight and reveille, and so keep the guard on tenterhooks, and make the tour as hard for them as I could."
- an excerpt from an 1894 story entitled "On the Offensive" by george Israel Putnam.
Here are some illustrative examples:
The idiom has found its way into various forms of media:
Looking for different ways to convey the same feeling?
It describes a feeling of anxious anticipation or suspense.
The expression traces back to the cloth-making industry centuries ago.
Tenterhooks were used to keep woven cloth stretched while drying to prevent shrinkage.
Yes, it's frequently used to express feelings of suspense or anticipation.
Absolutely! Like most idioms, context matters, and it can be used in light-hearted situations too.
Yes, "on pins and needles" and "on edge" convey similar feelings.
While its origins are in English, its meaning is understood in many parts of the English-speaking world.
Not necessarily. It mainly depicts anticipation, which can be both positive and negative based on context.
No, its central theme of tension and anticipation has remained consistent.
Yes, it can be used in various writing styles, but understanding the audience is key.
"On tenterhooks" is useful to emphasize suspense, tension, or anticipation. It paints a picture of someone waiting anxiously, uncertain of an outcome or result. Whether discussing a suspenseful moment in a movie, talking about waiting for exam results, or sharing the feeling of watching the last few seconds of a close game, the expression "vividly captures that sense of heightened anticipation.
Here's a quick wrap-up: