Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Episode 221: Pins and Needles

This week Shauna and Dan explore what it means to be on pins and needles. Bonus: Shauna reviews tiny artwork while Dan fawns over children's books.  Plus which would you rather be, a cheerleader or the mascot?

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 221: Pins and Needles
Record Date: January 14, 2024
Air Date: January 17, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
I remember when I was waiting to hear back from my university on whether or not I had made it into the degree program I was hoping for. I don’t think I had been so anxious about anything in my life. I got a call from my advisor who said, “I know you’ve been on pins and needles about this, so I wanted to tell you right away. You got in!”


Pins and needles is the way people often describe the odd sensation of fingers and toes, arms and legs regaining sensation after ‘falling asleep’ or going numb. In the figurative sense, pins and needles refers to feeling anxious, nervous, anticipatory, suspenseful, etc. Here is the definition according to Oxford English Dictionary,
A prickling or tingling sensation, paraesthesia; on pins and needles: in a state of agitated suspense or extreme uneasiness.
End quote

I like their description of extreme uneasiness. This is the way I think of the phrase at least and seems to hold up in many of the references.

Oxford English Dictionary places the figurative use as early as 1710 in the work Satyrical Reflection on Clubs by Edward Ward. The excerpt reads,

Clap'd Beaus and Rakes..Inflamed with Pins and Needles.
End quote

The phrase also appears in the 1786 play The Strangers at Home by James Cobb. This excerpt is a section of dialogue. The characters Octavio and Aldobrand are already present.

Enter LAURENCE drunk, and FABIO.

Is that Ragnalto’s servant?

He, himself, sir.

There you are mistaken; for I am not myself at present.

And your master

Like man, like master; he is not himself, neither. But we shall come to ourselves, both of us, before tomorrow morning!

Where is your master?
[Aside-I sit on pins and needles!]
End quote

An aside is a statement made by a character usually directed at the audience or to themselves to add context to a play.

This was clearly the figurative use of the phrase and was not explained, meaning it was expected that the audience would understand the meaning.

And it seems the phrase may have come about naturally but it is unclear whether this was born out of the description of tingly, prickly physical sensations or perhaps the discomfort of actually sitting on pins or needles.

And while the figurative use extends to both the physical sensation in medical contexts and concepts related to emotional unease, we will be focusing on the latter for this episode. So, we’ll be delving into the fun topic of anticipatory anxiety and emotional discomfort.

The next item attempted to offer some insight into the phrase.

This comes from the work Hamlet Travestie: in Three Acts by John Poole [With Burlesque Annotations, After the Manner of Dr. Johnson and Geo. Steevens, Esq., and the Various Commentators] published in 1812.

Here is the excerpt from John Poole’s work,
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.
End quote

And here is the section of annotation, which includes commentary from three individuals with… varying interpretations. Though all agree that it is a figurative phrase.

(f)-I'm sitting upon pins and needles—

I suppose that corking-pins are here intended. I once had a very strong reason for this supposition; but it has unfortunately escaped my memory.


The ingenious Mr. Theobald is wrong in his conjecture. If a distinction was at all intended, it certainly must have been in favour of blanket-pins. In the catalogue of the curious and valuable collection of Lord at, article 19,375, is "an antique bronze, representing the Genius of Irritability seated upon blanketpins;" to which it is probable our author is indebted for his forcible figure, till then I'm sitting upon pins and needles.


The caprice of conjecture, puerile and impertinent, can only be vanquished by the overwhelming force of fact. Weak, frivilous, and imbecile, I shall dismiss Mr. Theobald without a comment: the puissant lion, exulting in his prowess, and secure in his strength, ranges the desert regardless of the innocuous mouse. Unfortunately for the suggestion of Mr. Steevens, the collection of Lord was not formed until long after the death of our poet. As a mere illustration of the passage, it may be sufficient to remark, "that sitting upon pins and needles" is to this day used, in the more elegant and the graver sort of compositions, as an expression of impatience.

End quote

Critics seem to have been rather harsh towards one another back then as well. And it seems they were in no more agreement about the origin of the phrase.

The next item comes from a letter to the editor titled “Talk About the Weather” from The Wheeling daily intelligencer April 08, 1873, out of Wheeling, West Virginia.
There is no other word in the vocabulary of the English language that expresses or implies so much as that significant little word of seven letters and two syllables - the weather. Whenever I am trying to solve some perplexing mental problem my friends may converse all they please about the weather and it does not disturb me in the least, but let them attempt to broach any other subject and in an instant I am sitting on pins and needles and they are very apt to receive the length of my tongue if nothing more.
End quote

I gotta be honest, I am with this guy to an extent. Sometimes I will be lost in thought and the conversation amongst my friends is suddenly directed towards me and out of nowhere, I’ve forgotten how to interact with other humans…

The Arizona republican September 29, 1903, out of Phoenix, Arizona published a short story with a well-known name.

When J. P. Morgan went home yesterday afternoon everybody in his office breathed a sigh of relief. All day long the clerical force had acted as if it was sitting on pins and needles, and when the "old man" left the office the clerks felt an immense load lifted off their shoulders.
End quote

The article mentions that this was an unusual circumstance owing to one of the clerk's simple mistake in handing a personal report intended for J.P. Morgan to a reporter thinking it was a copy of a common daily report. The ensuing panic among the clerks was fueled by the inability for their messengers to find the reporter along with exaggerated rumors when,
The other reporters fell into the spirit of the situation, however, and confidentiality whispered to the messengers that the report contained some highly interesting reading which Morgan would not have published for millions of dollars.
End quote

I have one more item before we move to our modern uses. This one is in The Northwest times, October 08, 1949, out of Seattle, Washington. We are reading from a story titled Sap’s Fables by Yoichi Matsuda.

I see by the papers where a woman had 17 babies in 15 years.
Wow - and wow again.
"That's enough," she says. But us that's made of less sterner stuff would have yelled "Uncle" longer before her halfway mark.
Ye Gads, but having a baby is a rough grind. You have no idea what I went through when we had our first baby. It was bad enough waiting for the baby to come, waiting anxiously, nervously-wondering if the baby's going to be all right - sitting on pin and needles - but the real ordeal didn't start until we got the baby home.
End quote

Let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon. And the cool thing about Patreon is it is 100% free to join the Bunny Trails community!

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We’ve got some other pretty cool stuff, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

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Modern Uses

Needles and Pins is a rock song credited to American writers Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono. Jackie DeShannon first recorded it in 1963 and other versions have followed. The most successful ones were by the Searchers, whose version reached No. 1 on the UK singles chart in 1964, and Smokie, who had a worldwide hit in 1977.

The Searchers performed the song in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show who shared the video on youtube in 2020. Here are some of the lyrics

I saw her today, I saw her face, it was a face I loved, and I knew
I had to run away, and get down on my knees and pray that they'd go away
But still they'd begin (uh), needles and pins (uh)
Because of all my pride, the tears I gotta hide
End quote

This is one of the songs that is regularly covered by… well, lots of folks If you search the title on youtube, it will give autofill suggestions for such as cover, guitar cover, karaoke, etc. as well as other artists including, The Deftones, The Ramones, and Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks.  

Pins and Needles is the fourth studio album by Canadian rock band The Birthday Massacre. The album was released on September 14, 2010. Titles on the album include Pale, Control, Shallow Grave, In the Dark, as well as Pins and Needles. Here are the beginning lyrics,
Once a night the bedroom light
Bleeds out from inside my window
Eyes white, I keep out of sight
This city's just not pretty like it used to be
It's always a nightmare, it's never a dream
A promise we made to kill the days between
They live in the heartbeat and sleep till the light is gone
It's been so long
Feels like pins and needles in my heart
So long
I can feel it tearing me apart
End quote

On Pins and Needles by Chloe Taylor was released in 2013 is book #2 of 14 from the series Sew Zoey - sew is spelled S-E-W. Amazon lists the reading age as 8-12 years. Let’s read the synopsis,

As Zoey prepares for a sewing contest, she realizes her friendships are also in need of tailoring.

In the second book in the Sew Zoey series, things are going great for Zoey on the fashion front: She meets a real designer who tells her she should enter a big sewing contest, and she finds out that her idol, Daphne Shaw, is a fan of her blog! But off the runway, Zoey’s having friend trouble times two. First her best friend Kate gets her braces off—and starts getting a lot of attention from boys, including Zoey’s crush, Lorenzo. Is she still the same sweet Kate on the inside? Then Zoey’s newest friend, Libby, thinks Zoey is friends with her only because her aunt is one of the contest judges. Zoey thought fashion emergencies were tough…but compared to friendship emergencies, they’re a cinch. How can she prove that she’s friends with Libby for the right reasons and fix her relationship with Kate? In a way that is totally Zoey!
End quote

For the younger crowd, we’ve got the 2014 book Pins and Needles by Stephen Krensky (Author), and Kristyna Litten (Illustrator). This book is part of the Penguin Core Concepts series. The well-known publisher, Penguin, lists these books as a collection stating,

Exposing children to a diverse range of literary and informational texts, the Core Concepts program helps develop important literacy and cognitive skills necessary to meet many of the Common Core State Standards.
End quote

And here is the description of the book Pins and Needles,
 Pins is a porcupine who loves to take chances. Needles is a porcupine who is always scared. But when Pins gets himself into a bit of trouble, will Needles be brave enough to help him out?

Pins and Needles covers the concepts Appreciating Differences and Friendship.
End quote

Let’s move the opposite direction now and discuss a book for the adult types. Pins & Needles (A Gracie Andersen Mystery Book 5) by Laurinda Wallace was published in 2016. Here’s the synopsis.

Gracie Andersen is up to her eyebrows in wedding details when her mother, Theresa Clark concocts an intervention for a friend who’s become a hoarder. Just as Gracie’s plans for a casual outdoor wedding turn into a literal pipe dream, Theresa stumbles into a mystery surrounding a stolen heirloom quilt. A death in the hoarder’s garage only complicates matters, and Theresa convinces Gracie to help her find answers to the surreptitious activities on Oak Street. If that wasn’t enough, Isabelle is scheming to commandeer the wedding, and Marc is having second thoughts about his career path. Everyone is on, you guessed it—Pins & Needles.
End quote

Up next is a painting titled Yogi On Pins and Needles by David Chevtaikin from the United States. About the abstract impressionist work, he says,
Jean-Michel Basquiat influence using a original figure and composition and color palate with a graffiti influence.

I have always been influenced by the street of New York City since moving here many years ago and thought of combining more contemporary poses of yoga such as this painting titled" Yogi on pins and needles although the central figure seems to be in a folded leg or yoga pose with out stretched arms it can also be interpreted as a stick up or commanded to put your hands up. Wording such as Samo is the alternative avant garde and Common Man or Come On Man. Scribble the canvas. There is also a golden halo to signify saint, guru or king.
End quote

Naturally, there is a company that solidified its claim on this phrase…
Pins & Needles is your premier destination for all your sewing and quilting needs. We offer the best sewing machine online and in-store. Beyond providing industry’s finest quality sewing and embroidery machines, we also provide comprehensive services, including embroidery and sewing machine repair. We also conduct sewing classes for beginners and adults.

Our sewing store is stocked with the best selection of sewing and embroidery machines, their supplies to meet your creative needs. We provide customers with the best products, service, training and repair in Northeast Ohio.
End quote

That information comes from their website Pins and Needles dot-com.

In the world of art for pins and needles, I cannot leave out one unique story. Willard Wigan is an artist who specializes in miniature sculptures. Most of his work rests on the head of a pin or inside the eye of a needle. And they are really impressive. He has a few items for sale on his website. The prices are definitely out of my range but the details are incredible. These include items like a recreation of Mount Rushmore that sits inside a needle’s eye and the painting The Girl with a Pearl Earring that is shown next to a classic match… Gold frame included, the painting is smaller than the head of the match.

The BBC share about his work in their article Sculptor Dr Willard Wigan reveals micro-tribute to Queen posted June 5, 2022.
A famed microsculptor has created a replica of the Queen's Coronation carriage inside the eye of a needle.

Dr Willard Wigan worked up to 17 hours a day for several weeks and assembled more than 200 pieces under a microscope to create the miniscule model.
End quote

The article goes on to say that Dr. Wigan had used an eyelash attached to the end of a needle to paint a work he had previously created which was a figurine of Queen Elizabeth II.

Wrap up:
Experiencing pins and needles, whether from a compressed nerve or the weight of anticipation, is undeniably uncomfortable. That intensity of the sensation makes it challenging to concentrate on anything else when in this state. That’s part of the reason this phrase resonates with me… because it aptly captures the intensity of the experience. And I love the connection through time. For centuries, people have navigated the familiar blend of anticipation and unease. The phrase on pins and needles encapsulates this shared human experience and perhaps provides some comfort in its ability to foster empathy.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

Would you rather be a cheerleader or the mascot?

While there are a few cheerleaders out there, mascots took this one with 75% of the votes.

Well, I have to admit that in high school, I was a cheerleader but I think now, I would choose being the mascot for sure.

In terms of high school or college I would be more comfortable in the suit and under a mask where no one knows who I am. So I’d rather be a mascot. But in a company I would rather be one of many cheerleaders for a project than the mascot that everyone is looking to embody the work.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.



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