The interesting origins of an elusive word
Here’s a question for you: what does the word ‘tuffet’ mean? Can you picture or describe one? The word ‘tuffet’ should be easy enough to define. Its origins, similarly, should be fairly straightforward when we look into it. How about we make it a multiple choice question? Is a tuffet:
- a tuft or bunch of something
- a small hill or mound
- a hassock or footstool?
If you answered 3. then, alas, it appears you’re wrong. Or at least you may be. It’s a tricky issue, you see.
But if you did answer 3., it may have been because ‘tuffet’ reminds you, first and foremost, of the nursery rhyme ‘Little Miss Muffet’, which tells us:
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.
Just what, though, is Miss Muffet sitting on? The Oxford English Dictionary cites three different meanings for ‘tuffet’ – or rather, possibly three. The first sense defined is synonymous with ‘tuft’, as in a bunch of something (e.g. a tuft of hairs or fur), and is attested from the mid-sixteenth century. The second sense, defined as a hillock or mound, is backed up by one quotation, from the 1877 novel Erema by R. D. Blackmore, now chiefly remembered for Lorna Doone.
The third and perhaps most familiar sense is ‘hassock or footstool’ – a sort of pouffe, one supposes. But to this definition of ‘tuffet’ the OED appends a cautious ‘Perh.’: the only reason we think of a ‘tuffet’ as having this meaning is, it would seem, because people have (perhaps wrongly) deduced this meaning from the nursery rhyme. The two further citations from the OED for this sense of ‘tuffet’ don’t exactly disprove this hypothesis: the first, from E. F. Benson (best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia novels), is from the Contemporary Review in 1895, in reference to the Little Miss Muffet rhyme. The second, from the Westminster Gazette in 1904, uses the word to mean ‘footstool’, but it’s quite possible that this meaning, coming later than the Benson instance and at a time when the nursery rhyme was well known, was influenced by Miss Muffet too.
Why can’t Little Miss Muffet have been sitting on a small mound or hillock? The second meaning of ‘tuffet’ defined by the OED admittedly comes from the 1870s, long after the nursery rhyme was first published (it originally appeared in print in 1805 in Songs for the Nursery), but then perhaps both Blackmore and the anonymous author of the nursery rhyme were thinking hillocks rather than hassocks.
This reading of Little Miss Muffet is borne out by the fact that ‘tuffet’ (as in ‘hillock’) is probably derived, like the first sense of ‘tuffet’, from ‘tuft’, which had denoted a grassy hillock or knoll since at least the mid-seventeenth century. (The Spanish Mandevile of Miracles, or The Garden of Curious Flowers, a play dating from 1600, refers to a ‘tuffet of trees’, strongly suggesting this hillocky sense of the word.) So both the nursery rhyme and Blackmore’s novel were probably keeping this sense of ‘tuffet’ alive. A ‘tuffet’ as in a small footstool never existed – or, at least, it didn’t until the confusion over the nursery rhyme arose. The modern confusion over the word’s origin and meaning is down to Little Miss Muffet.
Image: Little Miss Muffet by John Everett Millais (1829-1896), via Wikimedia Commons.