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What does it mean?
As we all know, it is to have that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, being totally wrought up because we don’t know how something important is going to turn out, whether some news will be as bad as we feared, be it A-level results, a job application, a medical test: “Britain’s farmers have been on tenterhooks since a vet found lesions–possible signs of foot and mouth disease–in the mouths of two sheep at the farm on Tuesday.”
Where does it come from?
Why tenterhooks? Most people absorb the phrase as a whole (or Gestalt, if we want to be pretentious): they grasp the meaning without analysing its constituents. Others grasp the meaning but change the form to tenderhooks. That change is understandable, because who on earth knows what a tenterhook is?
Well, it’s all to do with tenters—who are not people who have anything to do with tents or camping. In fact, they are not people at all. (There is a word tenter meaning someone who lives in a tent, but that’s a different word.)
The tenter we’re interested in is, according to the OED, “a wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking”. The OED also points out that tenters once stood in the open air in tenter-fields or grounds, and were a prominent feature in cloth-manufacturing districts.
And in some antique panoramas of cities before or during industrialization the surrounding fields are filled with white waves of cloth suspended on tenters.
In the image here of Leeds in the 18th century (undated, but mid-, I guess, though I’m no costume expert) rows of tenters in some of the fields can just about be made out.
The origin of the word tenter, again according to the OED, is not certain, but may have to do with the Latin for stretching (tendĕre) or with the French for dye (teint).
And tenterhooks are?
As the OED puts it: “one of the hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter, by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held; a hooked or right-angled nail or spike; dial. a metal hook upon which anything is hung”.
How old is the word?
Tenters is first recorded in its literal sense from the 1300s (“Whon þe Iewes hedden þus nayled Criston þe cros as men doþ cloþ on a tey[n]tur”, Modern English: “When the Jews had thus nailed Christ on the cross as men doth cloth on a tenter“), while the last OED citation is from Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849).
Tenterhooks makes its first OED appearance in a citation from the 1480 wardrobe accounts of King Edward IV. Another sartorial context (1579) is provided by the Office of the revels of Queen Elizabeth I. You could buy a lot of them very cheap (by today’s standards): “Tainter Hookes at viiid the c.“.
How old is the metaphor?
Very. Tenters was used in several phrases such as to put or stretch on the tenters in the 16th century. The next two quotations suggest by their visual immediacy how much tenters must have been part of everyday life. From the author of that jewel of our language The Book of Common Prayer, and Protestant martyr, Thomas Cranmer (1551): “But the Papistes haue set Christes wordes vppon the tenters and stretched them owt so farre, that they make his wordes to signyfy as pleaseth them, not as he ment”, (not a sentiment calculated to endear him to Queen Mary).
And in this simile by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker (1602): “O Night, that…like a cloth of cloudes dost stretch thy limbes; Vpon the windy Tenters of the Ayre“.
Tenterhooks was used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond in various metaphors suggesting something causing suffering, and also the idea of stretching something beyond its proper bounds, as in this Isaac Disraeli (the Prime Minister’s dad) quote: “Honest men…sometimes strain truth on the tenter-hooks of fiction” (or, as we’d say nowadays, “are economical with the truth”).
However, according to the OED, the phrase to be on (the) tentherhooks meaning “to be in suspense” that has since become fossilized is first recorded only in 1748 in Smollett, and in its canonical form not until 1812, in the diary of soldier and diplomat Sir Robert Thomas Wilson: “Until I reach the imperial headquarters I shall be on tenter-hooks“.
Byron used the spelling “tender” – or did he?
The line from Don Juan runs as follows:
[It] keeps the atrocious reader in suspense; The surest way for ladies and for books To bait their tender or their tenter-hooks.
Does tender here go with hooks? Or is it used in the meaning of “offering”?
How frequent is the eggcorn version?
To be on tenderhooks is relatively well known among eggcornisti, and seems to me to be part of the “eggcorn canon”. But, actually, how frequent is it? I’ve looked at various sources, such as the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Contemporary American, of Historical American, and Google books (US), which all suggest that it isn’t at all frequent, at least in written sources. For instance, in the GloWbE (the Corpus of Global Web-Based English) it occurs 3 times against 241 for the correct version. Similarly in Google US books (155 billion words) the figures are 57 to 8,238.
Dictionaries don’t accept the eggcorn, and judging by relative frequency are unlikely to for a long time.