To be on tenterhooks is to be strained, waiting impatiently. But what the heck is a tenterhook?
A tenter is rack on which cloth or hide is stretched for drying. A tenterhook is what keeps the cloth in place. The exact origin of tenter is uncertain, the variety of forms makes it difficult to pin down. But it is either from the Anglo-Norman or Old French *tentour and ultimately the Latin *tentorum, or stretcher. English use goes back the 14th century manuscript Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost:
Whon þe Iewes hedden þus nayled Criston þe cros as men doþ cloþ on a teytur.
(When the Jews had thus nailed Christ on the the cross as men do to cloth on a tenter.)
The phrase on tenters appears in the 16th century. First in a literal sense and eventually a metaphorical one denoting strain. John Bourchier Berners in his The Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius, written sometime before 1533 wrote:
Ye haue strayned it on the tentours, and drawen it on the perche.
And there is this from the works of Thomas Cranmer, written sometime before 1556:
But the papists have set Christ’s words upon the tenters, and stretched them out so far, that they make his words to signify as pleaseth them, not as he meant.
Finally, there is this from John Ford’s 1633 The Broken Heart, used in the sense of suspense or waiting:
My very heart-strings Are on the tenters.
At the same time, we see the variant tenterhooks being used in the same senses. From Sir Thomas More’s 1532 The Confutation of Barnes:
The churche...is stretched out in the stretcher or tenter hookes of the crosse, as a churche well washed and cleansed.
From Philip Stubbes 1553 The Anatomie of Abuses:
He racketh it, straineth it, and as it were so setteth it on the tenter hookes.
And finally, the sense of suspense in Tobias Smollett’s 1748 The Adventures of Roderick Random 1748:
I left him upon the tenter-hooks of impatient uncertainty.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton