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.