What Does on Tenterhooks Mean?

On Tenterhooks Meaning

Definition: In suspense; in a nervous state.

Origin of on Tenterhooks

This expression would have been easier to understand many years ago, when tenters and tenterhooks were still commonly seen. Nowadays, these items are so rare that most people do not even know what they are.

In fact, many people even assume this expression is spelled as on tenderhooks because you are tender with something that is in a delicate or agitated state.

A tenter, from the Latin word meaning stretch, is a wooden frame that people use to make woolen cloth. After weaving the wool, wool workers still need to clean away the dirt without shrinking the material. Therefore, the workers put the wet cloth on these wooden frames to ensure that the material will remain stretched. The tenterhooks are the metal hooks that held the cloth to the frame.

The stretched out cloth remains there until dry, effectively waiting in suspense until it becomes ready for the next stage of the wool making process.

Examples of on Tenterhooks

waiting on tenterhooks In this example, two sisters are discussing a sensitive issue.

Amy: I told my boyfriend that I cheated on him.

Kimberly: Oh my goodness! What did he say?

Amy: He said he need to think about whether or not we should still be together.

Kimberly: I guess that makes sense, but I’m still sorry to hear that. How are you feeling?

Amy: Right now I’m just on tenterhooks. I’m completely stressed out waiting for his answer.

to be on tenterhooks In the second example, two friends are discussing the vandalism that one of them committed.

Keira: I’m dying from guilt. I have to confess to someone.

Rory: That sounds serious! What’s wrong?

Keira: I was so sick of Mr. Giles yelling obscenities at me every morning while I was jogging that I spray-painted some rude pictures on his garage!

Rory: That’s hilarious!

Keira: No, it’s not! I wish I had never done it. Now I’m on tenterhooks wondering if I’ll get caught!

More Examples

This example is about a critic waiting in suspense to find out who will win a prestigious award.

  • While normal viewers will be anxiously waiting for the big prizes at the end of the Tony telecast, I’ll be on tenterhooks until the featured actor in a play is announced. –LA Times

This excerpt is about the US president giving a speech at the United Nations.

  • “People are on tenterhooks,” said Stewart Patrick, an expert on global institutions and governance at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. “This is the most nationally minded president we’ve had in a long time … walking into the lion’s den.” –LA Times


The phrase on tenterhooks means in a state of uncertainty.