• tenterhook •
Pronunciation: tent-êr-hUk • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: One of many pointed pins or hooks fitted around a tenter, a frame for stretching skins, cloth, or similar materials to prevent shrinkage.
Notes: Even though being stretched on tenterhooks would make your skin tender, tenterhooks are not tender hooks. A tenter is a frame for stretching thin sheets of material. Tenters were used widely by hunters who stretched animal skins on them and housewives who stretched curtains and drapes on them before the advent of non-shrinking materials. In fact, this Good Word survives today almost exclusively in the phrase "to be on tenterhooks", the equivalent of being on pins and needles—in a highly anticipatory state of awareness.
In Play: "On pins and needles" is probably replacing "on tenterhooks" as more and more of us forget what tenterhooks are. However, at this point we still have our choice: "Wally's chemistry exam has him on tenterhooks: whether he goes to med school depends on his grade in that course." This word and tenter itself are also available in metaphors of stretching: "All of Izzy's tales about his fishing exploits come from the tenter (or tenterhooks) of his fertile imagination."
Word History: Tenter comes from Latin tentorium "shelter made of stretched skins," from tendere "to stretch," also the origin of tent, as you probably have already guessed. The root of this verb underlies many other English borrowings, such as extend, portend, and intend. The original Proto-Indo-European root came to English through its proto-Germanic ancestors as thin. When you stretch a skin, it becomes thin and hard. This explains why tetanus was borrowed from Greek tetanus "stiff, rigid" as the medical term for lock-jaw. In Persian the N in this word was replaced by R, producing tar "string," now a part of Hindi sitar, a stringed instrument. (We've kept you on tenterhooks long enough: Alan Janesch is the one we must thank for today's curiously Good Word.)
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Perhaps stretching the comparison a bit , tenterhook brings to mind another Goodword, procrustean, discussed here:
- Grand Panjandrum
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