April 27, 2020

W is for Whey

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider, and sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

        Normally she made a special point of carrying spiders outside in a glass.
        We start with another of my own illustrations (and the last one for this year’s challenge).  I didn’t want to portray senseless arachnophobia, so I tried to imagine a scenario in which even the most tolerant child might find herself running away from a spider.  I pictured her reading scary books in the attic when the spider suddenly startled her.  I show the moment just before Miss Muffet notices the spider.  Miss Muffet also
remains oblivious in the second illustration, but with the third she has become aware of her neighbor and is looking marvelously apprehensive.  And so she should, with a spider nearly as big as a cat!  Many illustrations make the spider truly monstrous, enough to frighten even the most stalwart arachnologist.  And our final illustrations complete the story as Miss Muffet runs away screaming.
        We’re not quite at the end of the month, but nevertheless I give you a Word of the Month today, and it is tuffet.  What is a tuffet, anyway?  In the 1550s tuffet was a diminutive variant of tuft (by way of Old French touffe).  As such it meant “a small grassy mound or clump of grass.”  The illustrations that place Miss Muffet outdoors are thus more etymologically accurate.  However, over the years the word tuffet disappeared from common usage, remaining nowhere in the language except in the nursery rhyme, where it was anchored by the necessity of rhyming with Muffet.  But no one really remembered what it meant.  In 1902 the essayist Samuel M. Crothers wrote, “Perhaps some of you would like to know what a tuffet is. I have thought of that myself, and have taken the trouble to ask several learned persons. They assure me that the most complete and satisfactory definition is,—a tuffet is the kind of thing that Miss Muffet sat on.”  Clearly it’s something you sit on, and perhaps because of the sound, lots of people interpret it as 
some sort of low stool or pouffe.  Some dictionaries now include this definition - after all, if that’s what people mean when they say it, then that’s what it means.  (See Humpty Dumpty.  You can also compare with the very parallel history of the word weird.)  Although I am usually the complete pedant about this sort of thing, I went with the footstool definition in my illustration because I wanted to place Miss Muffet in a dark and cobwebby attic, and not on a sunshiney meadow knoll.
        Given the current state of the word tuffet, there actually is a good definition, though.  A tuffet is a hassock.  This works because hassock, too, can mean both an upholstered footstool or ottoman, and a clump or tussock of grass or vegetation (although usually hassock refers to tufts of grass in marshy areas, where possibly Miss Muffet was unlikely to be sitting).  Hassock, too, began as a clump of grass or sedge, but by the early 1500s had acquired the meaning of “thick cushion for kneeling, or sitting, or feet.”  So I really don’t see any problem with letting a tuffet be a stool!
        On a final linguistic note, curds and whey is basically cottage cheese.  The primary difference is that cottage cheese tends to be more drained (more curds and less whey) and more salted than Miss Muffet’s snack probably was.
        So, what do you think Miss Muffet was sitting on?  And how do you feel about spiders?  Or cottage cheese?
        A final note for impressionable children: Be kind to spiders and they will eat the mosquitos that want to eat you.

[Pictures: Little Miss Muffet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002 (Image from my book);
Illustration from The Book of Nursery Rhymes, Tales, and Fables edited by Lawrence Lovechild, 1858 (Image from Internet Archive);
Wood block print from Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, published by Allen Brothers, 1869 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Detail from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House);
Color woodcut on cotton fabric by the Federal Art Project (Wisconsin), 1937-8 (Image from National Gallery of Art).]


Deborah Weber said...

I love your illustration and take on the tale. I'm definitely a spider lover (and glass transporter when necessary), but I do understand a good startle reaction when engrossed in the deliciously scary. And walking into cobwebs is almost a guaranteed to evoke a squeal from me. (What's with that anyway?!)

I think I always imagined Ms. Muffet on a tufted-pillow footstool. Curds and whey I imagined as some grotesque oatmeal concoction. Alas, now that I'm grown, both oatmeal and cottage cheese have entered my acceptable foods list. Though cottage cheese needs to be small curd and not overly creamy. And oatmeal drenched with dried fruit and/or nuts. Clearly I'm a more picky eater than Ms. Muffet. :-)

Kristin said...

The other night I was sitting at my computer when a centipede started to crawl from my desk onto the computer! Which caused me to react like Miss Muffet and scream and jump up and run out of the room. My husband saved me - finding the centipede hiding under the computer by that time. brrrr.

I thank you for the full story of the tusset.

Frédérique said...

Your illustration is beautiful and very close to the story I guess. I don't like spiders, but in another way I don't hate them either... Just not in the house ;)
W is for Women

Pax said...

Thanks for elucidating tuffet, hassock, and other assorted things to sit upon, either living or upholstered. Fun! However, spiders really must have 8 legs, so the Federal Art Project needs a little natural history lesson. It does make an interesting print on fabric, though. Could make an apron? Curtains for a child's room? I do like yours, Anne.

Rob Z Tobor said...

We have spiders living in our house somewhere most of the year. I really dont mind them being here as they generally just like to play statues in quiet corners. I only get annoyed with them when they set up home in the shower and I then have to save them before I have a shower.

The letters are fast running out now . . . . Phew

Jade Li said...

Spiders are fine as long as they are small and in a web. Big hairy jumping spiders no thanks. I don't kill spiders unless I can't catch-and-release the big ones. The little ones are here and there in the house and welcome. Now on to the tuffet: I go with the hassock similarity.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I love your take on the illustration, and the reasoning behind it!

The Multicolored Diary

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, this does look like a Humpty Dumpty moment! Oddly, as a child I DID imagine a tuffet as something outside! But if the word is out of use, fair enough, we can use it in a way that works for us. And I do like your visual version, well done!

Not crazy about spiders, but would rather see them outside than hanging over my bed. I do like cottage cheese.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Deborah, a perfect spider web is a wonder of nature... but a dirty old web, or any sort on my face: yeugh!

Kristin, I don't mind spiders, but centipedes give me the willies. I'm sure I would have squealed, too, if one crawled across my desk.

Pax, you are right about the natural history accuracy, but if you look closely it seems that only the second illustration really got it right: eight legs plus two pedipalps. To be fair to us artists, it's hard to carve lots of skinny little legs finely enough to fit them all in!

Frédérique, Rob, Jade, and Sue, I'm with you all in feeling that spiders are more acceptable in some places than others. Can't fault them for being outside, and even inside as long as they're out of the way, but not coming along to sit down beside me!

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Interesting about the words changing meanings over time. Love your illustration!

An A-Z of Faerie: Witches