Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Ms Muffet and the Coalition of Anarcho-Syndicalist Curd-Eaters

There's something about bagpipes - or perhaps bagpipers - that gives rise to innuendo worthy of a horde of over-informed 12-year-olds,* possibly on Scout camp, but more likely sitting up the back of an introductory class on simultaneous equations, especially under the stimulus of a teacher who foolishly advises these ardent young minds to use their rubbers, or just get on with it (squeal! giggle!). I can't think what. A more family-oriented instrument than a nice set of pipes I'm yet to meet.

Be that as it may, I was living it up with my bagpiping posse last night, and despite my judicious quotation from the Book of Lamentations, the piping fraternity insisted on rewriting the entire canon of English nursery rhymes for re-enactment by Pamela Anderson and a gentleman of her choice. I alluded to the third chapter of Exodus. They persisted with Jack Horner. I suggested prayer and contemplation. They made light work of Little Bo Peep. Eventually this arrant smut was flummoxed by a question that should have been addressed long ago: what in the world is a tuffet?

For years we've all been consenting to a narrative wherein Little Miss Muffet (which, while we're at it, is one of the most demeaning names to cross my path this year) sits on one of these tuffet thingamees, and for years we've never bothered to enquire further. She might have been sitting on a landmine casually abandoned by the Coalition of the Willing, for all we seem to have cared. Fortunately, the lexicographical folk at the Oxford English Dictionary have done our research for us, bless 'em. I present for your edification the following:

1) a tuffet is not a footstool; anyone who says it is has been misled by its use in the nursery rhyme under discussion;

2) in fact, says the OED, a "tuffet" is a "tuft";

3) indeed? say you. But what is a tuft? A tuft, mesdames, is "A bunch (natural or artificial) of small things, usually soft and flexible, as hairs, feathers, etc., fixed or attached at the base."

4) and here is an example: from 1553, "the goddesse ... wearethe a greate long tuffet of heare beefore, and behind hathe not one heare". A spunky coiffure, if ever there was one.

This is good to know, and to avoid future confusion, the rhyme should be rendered thus:

Little Miss Muffet (or Ms Muffet, in this day and age)
Sat on her bunch (natural or artificial) of small things, usually soft and flexible, etc,
Eating her curds and whey (that's tofu, to you)
When down came a spider (eek!)
Who sat down beside 'er,
And frightened Ms Muffet away (to collect a perforated cardboard box, with which to remove the spider to a more mutually satisfactory environment).


* N.B.: nothing against over-informed 12-year-olds. Some of my best friends were once (or are still) over-informed 12-year-olds, etc, etc.

15 comments:

TimT said...

Yes, my brother contracted the piping addiction at a young age. He used to practice with his posse in the Swan Hill community hall, a concrete building. With aluminium walls. It was loud. Where do you practice? Maybe you could go and practice in parliament house during question time. I'm sure no-one would mind.

alexis said...

Posse-wise: Allambie Hts public school library (it's where it's at, believe me).

Solo: I'm rather partial to the overhead pass on Parramatta Rd at Lewisham, otherwise frequented by dog-walkers, people trying to pass over Parramatta Rd (funnily enough) and rogue saxophonists. The overhead plane noise creates a pleasing sound buffer. The parliament house suggestion is a good 'un, only I have an allergy to Canberra.

Fancy your sibling being a pipester! Whaddayaknow!

righteous said...

If it took you that long to read Finnegan's Wake, would it take you longer to read Ulysses? How long would it take you to perform the labours of Ulysses? Which of the labours would appeal to you least - the cleaning of the stygian stables?

TimT said...

Now I remember you (and I can't believe it took me so long to connect the dots). I used to read your articles in the UR at Sydney Uni! I remember pissing myself laughing at your review of the women's magazines, and can still remember a one-liner of yours when you reviewed the telephone directory: "The lullingly labial la." Um, I can't remember the context.

(My own proudest moment in the UR, I guess, would have been when I got an 'Ode to Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine' published on the 'Appalling Poetry' page.)

alexis said...

Nooooo! (this to TimT, not you Righteous; I'll deal with you later.) I found yr blog by googling Coburg (imminent migration south, etc) and have been reading (and chuckling) my way through. But UR?! Egad. That takes me back. Sounds like high time Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine got herself another public airing.

alexis said...

Now, Righteous: Ulysses has more pages than Finnegans, but also more intelligible words per page. I'm not averse to stable cleaning. The manure does wonders for my Leopold Blooms.

TimT said...

Well, I knew he had a cerebral meningitis as a kid and was an alcoholic and all, but I had NO idea he had a sex change!

Moving to Melbourne? Excellent suggestion, even if you do say so yourself. Coburg would certainly be an interesting place to start the adventure. Why, you could even purchase a home in Pentridge Piazza and enjoy the finest barbed-wire views north of the Yarra!

alexis said...

Ahem. Yes. That old "Alexander" is a boys' name principle. Quite. (Although, y'know, sex changes are all the rage round these parts. Maybe that's just the kind of narrative stimulus the Ode Part II needs.)

Re moving to the 'bourne: you paint a very beguiling picture of Coburg, and I'm awfully tempted, although in light of my future workplace, I'm thinking I should aim for somewhere a bit more Northcote/Thornburyish. Budget permitting.

TimT said...

I thought it was just a clever reference to chesspian Alexandra Kosteniuk, somewhat in keeping with the earlier mix up by Righteous of 'The Labours of Hercules' with 'The Labours of Ulysses', and with reference to your own name, obviously.

TimT said...

BTW, I've noticed that my blog does not link yours. The only reason for this is that I did not know until yesterday that your blog existed. This appalling oversight of mine has now been remedied: you are linked.

Maria said...

Finnegan's Wake has fewer words, but less intelligible words.

I'm with righteous on this one, blaze through Finnegan's Wake. It's the number of words that count. You're not meant to comprehend Finnegan's Wake anyway. If Joyce wanted us to understand him, he would have written "Jabberwocky".

'Lexi, now you've revealed your secret of dodging to the left to miss your marksman, perhaps your repertoire ought include dodges to the right, for added unpredictability (and entertainment for bored traffic helicopter pilots)?

alexis said...

There's been far too much dodging to the right lately for my liking, and I, for one, won't be part of it. (Thanks for your kind suggestion, though. I appreciate the sentiment.)

As for Finnegans Wake, sure you're not meant to *comprehend* it, but noone in litcrit circles is bothered with comprehension these days. It's all about, like, y'know, deconstructing the illusion of comprehensibility. Finnegans Wake does that for you before you even start, and you're left with the finest perversion of language ever. It should be read slowly, very slowly, with lots of pikelets and jam on hand.

Maria said...

Aaaah, with all the mortarboards and the flowing gowns, and the heaving about of OEDs and PhDs, I was under the unfortunately not-deconstructed-for-me illusion that the tomes needed to be understood.

If only my mother had told me the truth. I suppose as I discovered the truth about the Tooth Fairy by laying in wait with a Tooth Fairy trap under my pillow for several years (which has resulted in the unfortunate shape of my head now), I should not have trusted her.

I might have become one of the litcrit sisterhood, instead of labouring through my double diploma in flower-pressing and fondue-making. Not that these skills haven't served me well, of course.

alexis said...

Fondu-making! Now you're talkin'! If only there was more fondu, there'd be less ... unfondu.

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