Now is the time for gardeners to hop from foot to foot in anticipation, to check and re-check the spring plantings. Will all the bean seeds break ground? Can the potatoes make their way to the surface? What if an outbreak of slugs devastate the baby chard?
Of course, I’m talking about other gardeners being tense, not me. I’m totally calm. I’d say I’m as cool as the proverbial cucumber, but that’s a vegetable I detest so I won’t compare myself to one. Let’s say I’m as cool as an alpine night. That’s chill!
No, you won’t find me hovering over the zucchini seedlings or measuring the progress of the onion sets. Neither will you see me drumming my fingers on the calendar. I’m not impatient for the first harvests. Not I.
I’m sympathetic to ordinary gardeners, though. I understand that they are on tenterhooks in keen anticipation of early yields and in wary dread of pests and blights. If I weren’t so alpine chill, I’d be on tenterhooks, too.
Even as I use this arcane expression, I wonder – what are tenterhooks and why, oh why, would anybody be on them? Once again, I am grateful for the Internet and how promptly it supplies enlightenment. I seek an answer and I find an answer.
Apparently, back in the seventeenth century, there were woolen mills aplenty and these mills were surrounded by fields of wooden frames called tenters. Each tenter had hooked nails all around its perimeter. After wool was woven into cloth, it was washed. To keep it from losing its shape, the cloth was stretched on the tenter and hooked onto the nails. Wool has a natural tendency to shrink, so as it dried, the cloth was under tension, held in place by the hooks.
Therefore, on tenterhooks means under tension. This meaning has expanded to include the concept of tense anticipation.
On the tenters and on tenterhooks first appeared in print in the seventeenth century. Authors used these expressions in the same way we use the idiom today. I wonder if it was used by the common folk first, then used by authors, or did the authors use the expression and the common folk liked the imagery and picked up on it. Either way, it has persisted long after those old mills.
These musings lead me to wonder about idioms. We have – which came first, the chicken or the egg – and I further ask – which came first, the author or the idiom?
But I digress. Neither tenterhooks and woolens nor authors and idioms have anything to do with gardening. Still, this detour allowed my mind to think of something other than my garden. I need that because the time to first yield seems to stretch out to infinity.
However, I’m not in a state of tension and suspense. I’m not on tenterhooks. I want to make that perfectly clear.
Time, tenterhooks, teal, train, turtle – the list of t words goes on. Did you know that t is the second most common letter in the English language? Here’s a video about t for those learning their letters: