A little debate took place at work today. Is the phrase “Walking on tenderhooks” or “walking on tender hooves”?
I was telling a story and said, “We were all walking around on tenderhooks.” I continued the story and at the end, both L-Train and Young Attorney said, “walking on WHAT?”
“Tenderhooks,” I replied.
“Don’t you mean tender hooves?” L-Train asked.
“Tender hooves – what are those?”
So we quickly consulted Wikipedia (the source of all online knowledge) and didn’t get a good answer.
So I did a general search on the phrase “walking on tenderhooks” and Yahoo said, “Do you mean ‘tenterhooks’?”
“Tenterhooks?” Young Attorney questioned. “What’s that?”
So we clicked.
And this is what we read:
Well, a “tenter” is, or was, a wooden frame on which freshly-woven cloth was stretched as it dried (“tenter” comes from the Latin “tendere” — “to stretch”). “Tenterhooks” were the hooks on the tenter which held the cloth in place, and, back when everyone knew what tenters were, “to be on tenterhooks” must have seemed like an excellent metaphor for “being in a painful state of suspense.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase was first used in this sense in the mid-18th century by Tobias Smollet (“I left him upon the tenter-hooks of impatient uncertainty”).
I was pleased that I was only off by one letter, and basically had it right. After a search for tender hooves just now, I found nothing on that other than horses with injuries.
Anyway, we put the word and its brief definition on Young Attorney’s white board – I predict we’ll all be saying it a lot tomorrow, if only to torture another attorney who will most likely insist that it’s “tenderhooves.”
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