On Pins and Needles (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "On Pins and Needles"?

The term "on pins and needles" means anxious or nervous, especially in anticipation of something.
On Pins and Needles (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • We have been on pins and needles, waiting for updates since we heard about John's accident.
  • Relax. The results will come out soon. You have been on pins and needles all day.
  • I am expecting a phone call about last week's job interview. I'm on pins and needles at the moment.
This idiom has been in use since the early 18th century (evidence). It originates from the idea that someone who is eagerly waiting for something cannot stand still but instead paces around or hops on the spot. The term refers to the image of a person being unable to remain still because they are standing on a bed of pins and needles.

One of the earliest cited examples comes from John Poole's "Hamlet Travestie" in 1810:
  • No doubt some dirty work, if this be true,
    Would it were supper-time, this tale so wheedles,
    Till then I'm sitting upon pins and needles.

"Pins and Needles" or "Needles and Pins"?

The original saying is "pins and needles." (If the version above is the first usage, then "needles" had to come second to ensure a rhyme with "wheedles.") Nevertheless, the word order is sometimes given as "needles and pins." (The expected word order of a term with two or more words is known as collocation.)

This alternative word order was popularized by the song Needles and Pins, which has been performed by several big bands (including The Searchers, Tom Petty, and the Ramones) since it was written in the 1960s.

Competing Theory

"On pins and needles" refers to the tingling sensation experienced when feeling returns to a numb limb. ("Pins and needles" occurs when the blood supply to the nerves is cut off, which is usually caused by sitting or sleeping on an arm, hand, leg, or foot. Normally, it stops when the weight is taken off the body part and blood returns to the nerves.) It is unclear how this relates to eager anticipation.

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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