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Meaning of “On Tenterhooks” phrase of Idiom, definition and synonyms use in sentence.

On Tenterhooks

“The King of Morocco may stab his subjects, throw them to the lions, or hang them on tenterhooks.”

-PHILIP STONEY: Discovery of Treasonable Faction, etc. (1683).

When we read that an author of a thrilling romance is so successful in the unfolding of his plot that be constantly “keeps his readers on tenterhooks,” we know that all he does is so to maintain their interest in his story that they are in a mental state of painful suspense, or one of impatient uncertainty.

John Howard, the great 8th-century philanthropist and prison reformer, in his Prisons of England (1777), mentions, among other penal forms then a part of the social order, the provision of “strong palisades with tenterhooks” for the punishment of prisoners. A tenter, originally, was a machine or frame used in the textile industries for stretching cloth, in order that it should set evenly after having been fulled. The cloth was attached to the frame by means of hooks, such as are found in butchers’ shops for hanging meat, and then the frame was tightened to the required density.

The punishment, long since abolished, was one of those cruelties perpetrated in a brutal and semi-ignorant age. Some of our forbears must have taken a sheer delight in watching the agonies of those unfortunate beings who fell into the clutches of the law, and were forced to undergo the horrors of being impaled on tenterhooks.

Of all the monsters that the world pollute

None is so savage as a human brute;

Man, when benevolence is once forgot,

Is one gross error: one prodigious blot.

JOHN SWAIN: The Pleasures of the Torture Chamber (1931).

Prisoners were suspended on these hooks by the chin, the whole weight of the body forcing the point of the hook through the lower jaw into the mouth and tongue. So prevalent was this practice in the Middle Ages that preachers and writers found it a prolific source of metaphor in their references to persons and causes being “stretched on tenterhooks.”


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