Tender are the hooks.
Dear WD: Living in the US, I keep in touch with my native Canada by a number of methods, one of which is my broker. In any event, she sent me an email the other day expressing the view that the current Canadian economic expansion is leaving the overall economy on “tender hooks,” which I took to mean that present good times are less than robust, somewhat fragile. But the expression “tender hooks” seems wrong. What’s the scoop? — Michael Raynor.
Ah, Canada. (Or should that be “O, Canada”?) Like many U.S. citizens, I have quite a few impressions of Our Northern Neighbor that probably bear only a remote relation to the truth. Let’s play “free association” with Canada for a moment and see who wins. Canada. Beavers. Mountains. Plaid. Moose. Plaid moose. Hmmm. Maple syrup. Waffles. Kitchen. Whoops, well, that’s what I get for writing this column first thing in the morning. In any case, I’ll bet I know something about Canada that you don’t — your National Grammatical Critter of the Day is the Mondegreen, and your broker has just proven it.
What she meant to say, although she didn’t know it, was that the Canadian economy was “on tenterhooks,” not “tender hooks,” which is indeed a “mondegreen” (a mis-heard word or phrase). Mondegreens, to which I devoted several columns recently, are often the result of hearing, rather than reading, an unfamiliar phrase.
So what, I hear you ask, are “tenterhooks,” anyway? 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”). Although tenters are long gone, tenterhooks are with us still.