Saturday, 11 September 2010

Tuffets and how to sit on them

"Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet..." - it’s a nursery rhyme that’s familiar to most English speaking people. But do you know what a tuffet is? If I asked you to go and sit on one, where would you look - in the living room, maybe? Or out in a field?

Arthur Rackham (1922) shows Miss Muffet sitting on a grassy knoll
Leaving aside the meaning of the rhyme itself (who was Miss Muffet, why was she eating curds and whey, why was she frightened of spiders and why should anybody care?) let me return to that curious word: ‘tuffet’.

According to Wikipedia, ‘tuffet’ is a synonym for pouffe or hassock - a small stool or low seat. It also gives an alternative definition: “an inflatable landing area for precision accuracy parachute landings” - though in Miss Muffet’s case I think that may be safely discounted. This seems to place Miss Muffet in the living room whereas I had always assumed she was sitting out in a field.

It turns out that both the words ‘tuffet’ and ‘hassock’ were originally used to describe grassy knolls (so my version of Miss Muffet may, after all, be correct). The OED gives the origin of the word as ‘tuft’ which underwent a suffix change to ‘tuffet’ and used to be used to describe, ‘a tuffet of hair’. By the 19th century the word was being applied to grassy mounds (“Here were six little grassy tuffets”) and its application to footstools came later - “perhaps due to a misunderstanding of the nursery rime” comments the OED. This misunderstanding may have been brought about by confusion with the word ‘buffet’ which, since at least the 15th Century was used to describe a low stool.

Since the ‘low stool’ meaning of tuffet seems to date only from the late 19th Century, maybe the date of the nursery rhyme may give us a clue as to whether or not this is likely to be the object that was intended?

The rhyme is often interpreted either as a story about Mary Queen of Scots being frightened by a spider or about Patience Muffet, the daughter of a 16th Century entomologist. Both of these interpretations require that the poem be dated from the 16th Century. These are attractive theories apart from the fact that there appears to be no evidence that the poem does, in fact, date from that time. The first known appearance of the rhyme was in 1805.

Nevertheless, as far as I can determine, 1805 is an early enough date to make it fairly safe to assume that the tuffet in the rhyme was a grassy mound and not a stool. Even as late as 1900, the word tuffet is used with this meaning in a parody of the original poem by Guy Wetmore Carryl.
Little Miss Muffet discovered a tuffet,
(Which never occurred to the rest of us)
And, as ’twas a June day, and just about noonday,
She wanted to eat—like the best of us:
Her diet was whey, and I hasten to say
It is wholesome and people grow fat on it.
The spot being lonely, the lady not only
Discovered the tuffet, she sat on it.

I think it is reasonable to assume that Miss Muffet in this version was far more likely to chance upon a grassy mound in a lonely spot (the next verse tells us that “A rivulet gabbled beside her”) than a low stool.

We can search for more evidence for the meaning of tuffet in paintings and illustrations. Most 19th and early 20th century artists appear to favour a grassy mound. Amongst the artists who have illustrated the rhyme, the following all show Miss Muffet sitting on grass: John Everett Millais (1884), Kate Greenaway (1881), L. Leslie Brooke (1922), Arthur Rackham (1922) - as do several unnamed artists from the late 19th/early 20th Century whose work I’ve found on various web sites.

By the early 20th Century, however, there has clearly started to be some disagreement. This web site shows a number of illustrations (the earliest being from 1902) which show Miss Muffet sitting on a stool.

This picture by Jessie Willcox Smith (1912) shows that Miss Muffet was sitting on a stool when the spider appeared.

The first mention of tuffet as a stool in the OED is by (E F?) Benson (1895) from the July edition of the Contemporary Review: “Little Miss Moffat (sic) ... hastily got up from the tuffet - which turned out to be a three-legged stool”. The fact that he has felt the need to explain the meaning suggests that ‘tuffet’ was by no means an everyday word at the time. I am left wondering whether his explanation was intended to be humorous - that is, was he deliberately misdefining the word for comic effect? If so, could it be that Benson is responsible for the whole ‘a tuffet is a stool’ school of thought that since followed?

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the full article from which the quotation is taken so the OED’s brief excerpt remains to tantalise me...

For John Everett Millais (1884), Miss Muffet's tuffet is definitely a grassy knoll and not a stool


  1. I like this very much. I am just about do a post about Miss Moffet and would like to link to this if I may.

  2. Thank you. Please feel free to link!

  3. I hope you like this