The Meaning Behind the Cheesy Nursery Rhyme “Little Miss Muffet”

Rarely do classic nursery rhymes use words that most readers don’t know and have never heard before. But “Little Miss Muffet” is one of those rare exceptions. The short verse, about a young girl and a scary spider, includes words like “tuffet” and “curds and whey.” So, what the heck are those? Let’s dive into the history and meaning of the rhyme.

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The Meaning of the Rhyme

While the poem on its face is about fear and even arachnophobia, it can also be a metaphor for Murphy’s Law, which says that anything that can go wrong will. Even when you’re sitting down ready to eat, poof: spider. Now, what to do? That’s what’s really at stake.

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The first printing of “Little Miss Muffet” came in 1805 in Songs for the Nursery. But as with many of these classical verses, the lyric is likely older. For instance, folklore scholars Iona and Peter Opie believe it to be much older, like “Little Jack Horner,” which dates back to the 1700s.

Either way, today, the most common version of the rhyme goes,

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on her tuffet
Eating her curds and whey 
Along came a spider

Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away

Since this verse appeared, many versions of the story have been written, as have additional verses. Readers can see two different renditions of the classic story below. One where the girl comes back to scare the spider and another where she asks her mother for help.

In addition to different endings, there are versions with even different vocabulary, including, “Little Miss Mopsey, Sat in the shopsey” from 1842 and “Little Miss Muffet, sat on a buffet.” There is also “Little Miss Ester who sat on a tester.” In the end, it would seem, the rhyme of “Muffet” and “tuffet” ruled the day, however.

But what are all the words?

The Hillside, The Toadstool, The Tuffet

Most scholars have traced the word “tuffet” to a small hillside or grassy area. As in the word, “tuft.” Or the French word, “tufe,” which means a clump of grass. Today the word can mean a small seat but that is likely due to the nursery rhyme, which, in pictures, often shows the girl sitting on a toadstool. That meaning, thus, has only since been ascribed.

Who Was Miss Muffet?

Sometimes the figure is thought to be Patience Muffet, daughter of Dr. Thomas Muffet, who died in 1604. He was a physician and an entomologist who studied insects. The name and the bugs fit. But while those boxes are checked, people like the Opies are dubious that a poem would be written about him and printed some 200 years later.

[RELATED: Behind the Universal Nursery Rhyme “The Farmer in the Dell”]

Other figures have been speculated about as well, including Mary, Queen of Scots, who died in 1587. More than likely, the characters are purely fictional.

What Are Curds and Whey?

Essentially, cottage cheese. For those who have never had cottage cheese, it is a (curdled) dairy product with minimal flavor (though people like to top it with berries and the like) that is both chunky and a bit soupy. It’s made from skimmed milk, keeping the curds and leaving some of the liquid whey.

So, What IS the Meaning of This Verse?

There is an interesting occurrence of threes here. We have Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey. She is the dominant figure, taming nature and getting its milk. But then that power dynamic is upset by the smallest of creatures: a little spider. How vulnerable we can be, even when we’re completely in our element.

But what happens next? That is in the eye of the beholder, it would seem. The original verse only set up the issue. How it’s solved is up to us. Does he approach the spider? Stay running away? Find help? You decide.

Photo by HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


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  2. We enjoy reading your blog! Your unconventional perspective and genuine voice make a difference in the world. Keep sharing, because your words have a lasting impact. Thank you for being yourself!

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  3. We enjoy reading your blog! Your distinctive perspective and genuine voice make a difference in the world. Keep creating, because your ideas have a lasting impact. Thank you for being yourself!

    Thanks – TheDogGod

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