Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Patience Muffet and the Spider

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

In yesterday's blog, I wrote about some of the spiders we find outside here,
including cobweb weavers and orb web weavers.
But I wondered, what kind of spider plunked down on a straight-line web
and startled Little Miss Muffet?
And, for that matter, was there ever a real Miss Muffet?
And perhaps most vexing of all: what exactly is a tuffet?
Nursery rhymes are often centuries old,
so their origin is often lost, raising many questions.
But today I've got a few answers.

Let's start with Miss Muffet.
According to Gloria T. Delamar in her book
Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature,
some sources claim that the rhyme was written by Dr. Thomas Muffet,
a naturalist, physician, and entomologist who lived from 1553 to June 5, 1604.
This interpretation is based on the fact that 
Dr. Muffet studied silk worms and spiders,
and because he was instrumental in extending and editing
the medieval science book Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum,
or more simply Theatre of Insects (source:
And because he had a stepdaughter named Patience Muffet.
In conjunction, all of these facts were probably too tempting for theorists to ignore.

But Delamar points out that the earliest published version
of the nursery rhyme dates only to 1805,
making it less likely that Dr. Muffet was the author.
So the rhyme's authorship remains a mystery.

As for the type of spider,
it's inconclusive, since many use long web strands to move around.
The most likely candidate is a tiny black spider called a jumping spider.
And that's one I don't think I've ever seen here in the Shire.
 I also read that the long strands can move a small spider over a mile.
That seems an incredible distance,
so I'd want more verification that it's true.

But I can say with more assurance what a tuffet is.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
the word tuffet is a 14th-century Middle English word
derived from the French word touffe, meaning a thick tuft or clump of grass.
And we do have tuffets here.

And what about those curds and whey?
They are equivalent to today's cottage cheese.
The etymologies of the words are more interesting.
Curd appeared in Middle English literature in the 14th century as crud.
Through a linguistic process called metathesis, the r and u were reversed.
This kind of sound change is fairly common, having been the genesis
of our modern word "bird"--once "brid."

"Little Miss Muffet" is a fun rhyme, 
but I can't imagine any self-respecting spider
would have been interested in Patience Muffet or her curds and whey.
More than likely the little guy got caught by the breeze
or was making his way to  the tuffet to look for some insects to eat.

Instead of running away,
Miss Muffet should have looked the spidery interloper
straight in the eye and said these special words of warning
 from a rhyme by Eve Merriam:

Keep out of sight for fear that I might
glom you a gravely snave.
Don't show your face around  any place
or you'll get one flack snack in the bave.

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