Idioms drop into our language from sources that we’d never think about and then change so that the original connotation is lost forever. Sometimes, I have to say, this is a good thing. A lot of the time the new meaning gets absorbed into our speech and thoughts so thoroughly that we never even consider what started the word or the phrase.
A couple of words that stick in my mind are kind of related—instead and lieutenant. I don’t have any idea what first made me take these words apart in my head—boredom, I suppose—but it suddenly came to me one day in junior high school that lieutenant meant someone who was, maybe temporarily, holding the place of someone else. A tenant in lieu of another. I can remember that I was utterly delighted that I knew something that most people had never considered. Okay, I was easily delighted in those days.
When I pulled out a dictionary and checked out the word (verify, verify!) I found that my idea had merit and that was enough to start me thinking about other words I could dissect. From there it was just a baby step to catch-phrases and idioms. It’s a pastime I still indulge in to this day.
Today I was trying to think of an expression to convey my anticipation of publication! It’s not even under my own name, because the book is an anthology of short stories and a bit of poetry put together by the Orange County Writers Guild. Only a small part of the total is my own work, but I still feel pangs of minor anxiety while I wait for Amazon to make the volume available to the world. As I sat here checking out the Amazon site for the thousandth time in the last three days, it came to me that I was on tenterhooks. Curiosity got the best of me. Why tenterhooks? What in the world is a tenterhook, anyway? I know you’re dying to know, so here’s the history.
Back in the day, when wool was woven into cloth it was necessary (for obvious reasons) to wash the residual grease and dirt out of the fabric. That process tended to cause the new material to shrink, so it would be attached to a tenter, which was a frame designed to preserve the size and shape of the wool cloth. The device used to make the attachment was, of course, a tenterhook. As the cloth dried and stretched over time, there was tension, but the finished product would be worth the trouble and waiting. While that was all happening, sure enough…on tenterhooks. The idiom makes more sense when you have a little background, doesn’t it?
I don’t suppose I’ve heard anyone actually say on tenterhooks for a great many years, but the next time a viable situation comes up, I think I’ll just casually throw it into the conversation so I can explain the etymology. Fun!
Now, having exhausted that thread, let me tell you about our book, which is entitled Brevity in Paradise . It’s a collection of short works, things to while away the time when you’re waiting on the phone for the cable company to explain why your bill has increased for no reason, or watching the timer on the microwave work its way down to a finished bag of popcorn. I may be a few points shy of the ultimate state of impartiality, but I think our group has some truly talented writers, and I’d love for people to make their acquaintance. In case you forget the name of the book, don’t worry. I’ll no doubt be inserting blatant bits of promotion here and on my other blog, Stories Without End, particularly once Amazon has it available for sale. It might be any minute now!
In the meantime, I’m on tenterhooks.
I’ll see you again, after the commercial.