On Tenterhooks – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Would you like to say that something is extremely suspenseful, or that you are waiting for something to happen at the figurative edge of your seat with a lot of anticipation? The phrase 'on tenterhooks' can be used to say this in certain contexts. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this English expression.


The phrase 'on tenterhooks' is used to mean that someone is waiting for something to happen with a lot of excitement or suspense.

When someone is 'on tenterhooks' then it means that they can barely wait for something to happen, or they are nervous about the outcome of something that is still to be determined.

The phrase 'on tenterhooks' is most often used to imply suspense or anticipation.

The term can be used as a self-reference, but it can also be used as a third-party reference to someone else in conversation.

If someone is 'on tenterhooks' then it means they are waiting on something, or waiting for something.

The phrase can be extended to say that someone 'is waiting on tenterhooks' to say that something is suspenseful.

The most common incorrect use of the phrase says that someone is 'on tenderhooks' which does not actually mean anything. Sometimes the phrase is also misused as 'tinderhooks', which again means nothing.

If someone is said to be 'on tenterhooks' then it can be assumed that what they are waiting for or worried about has not taken place yet.

Example Usage

“Let me tell you, we were surely on tenterhooks to find out what the gender of the baby was going to be until the big reveal party happened.”

“We were on tenterhooks waiting for the results of my mother's test on Saturday. I'll post the results for anyone who was waiting with us.”

“We're on tenterhooks to find out which horse got to the end of the race. We're going to be either very rich, or the poorest guys in town.”

“If you're on tenterhooks to find out what's going on in that place, the best thing I can do is to tell you to check the news tomorrow.”


According to most online etymology resources, the meaning of the phrase 'on tenterhooks' can be taken back to the early-1900s when a 'tenter' was known as a hook that made up part of a weaving frame.

To say that something was 'on tenterhooks' was another way to say that something was under great stress or tension, figuratively said in comparison to the way that thread or wool would be spun on the frame.

First possible use of the term is not listed according to most online language resources, but it can be assumed that the term achieved more popular use thanks to widespread use in media after the 1900s.

The term would persist as a cultural reference and saying, and continue well into the days of early message boards in the 2000s and social media websites in the 2010s.

Phrases Similar to On Tenterhooks

  • With bated breath

Phrases Opposite to On Tenterhooks

  • With the sound of no hands clapping

What is the Correct Saying?

  • On tenterhooks
  • [Waiting] on tenterhooks

Ways People May Say On Tenterhooks Incorrectly

There are several ways in which someone can use the phrase 'on tenterhooks' in the wrong way, or misunderstand what the phrase means.

The most common way to use the phrase in the wrong way is to say 'on tenderhooks' instead of 'tinterhooks', though sometimes 'tinderhooks' is another wrong use of the phrase.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase On Tenterhooks

The correct way to use the phrase 'on tenterhooks' is to use it to mean that someone is waiting in suspense for something that has not happened yet.

When said, the situation that is being referenced is usually made clear by the speaker or from the rest of the context.

The phrase can be said as 'waiting on tenterhooks' for something as an alternate use of the phrase.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *