Q From Meg Laycock: When I jokingly told a co-worker I would be on pins and needles until she provided me some information I’d requested, she immediately asked, ‘Where did that expression come from, anyway?’ The expression seems to imply the same uncomfortable anxiety as on tenterhooks (I just read your explanation of that one), but otherwise doesn’t appear to be related. So just where did it come from, anyway?
A I’m sure you’re right in suggesting this origin for the saying. The implication is that you’re in a state of nervous anticipation, unable to settle, as though you were sitting on a bed of nails.
There are actually two expressions involving pins and needles. The other describes the tingling sensation in arm or leg that appears when an arm or leg is recovering from numbness. The entries in the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that both are of similar date: yours is recorded slightly earlier, turning up first in 1810, but the other is known from 1813, which is a dead heat in etymological terms.
Both phrases are figurative expressions that imaginatively describe the phenomena involved.
I was going to suggest that your version is North American and mine British, largely because I only know the tingling sensation one and not the one implying nervous anticipation. However, I see that it also appears in one of my Australian dictionaries and at least one of my British ones as well, so it has obviously just passed me by.