On the Origin of Tenterhooks

I’m waiting for a response from a publisher regarding a piece of flash fiction. I sent it in last Friday and I STILL haven’t received an answer. Can you believe it?

Okay, I can believe it too. These things take time. Like, a lot of time. It could be weeks, months, or never before I hear from a publisher regarding a submission.

The truth is that I hate waiting. Patience has never been my strong suit. And as I sit here clicking refresh on my email browser window, I’m reminded of the phrase, being “on tenterhooks”.

A lot of people say it wrong as “on tenderhooks”, but that isn’t a thing. So let’s look at the origin of the tenterhook.

Stretching a wet kersey on the tenter. Illustration by Harold Blackburn in 'Colne Valley Cloth' by Phyllis Bentley, published in 1947 by The Hudderfield and District Woollen Export Group

Stretching a wet kersey on the tenter. Illustration by Harold Blackburn in ‘Colne Valley Cloth’ by Phyllis Bentley, published in 1947 by The Hudderfield and District Woollen Export Group

Back in the day when clothes were made down the street instead of on the other side of the Earth, words like “tenter” and “tenterhooks” were commonplace. If you’ve ever washed a new sweater in hot water and dried it on high heat (I owe my wife probably four sweaters because I’ve done this to her stuff), then you know that some clothes shrink.

Tenterhooks were the hooks that stretched cloth over “tenters”, or frames designed for drying cloth. In fact, the word “tenter” comes from the Latin tendere, meaning “to stretch”. So to be “on tenterhooks” means to be stretched uncomfortably as you wait to dry.

Now you know. It doesn’t make the waiting any easier or more comfortable, but learning new things helps distract me from the fact that the publisher still hasn’t emailed me, even though it took me all that time to research and write this up. I guess I need more time in sun to dry out.

Where I did my research:

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