The Wordery:


The Merkin So I was chatting away with my good friend Lady Jane the other evening. As well as being an author, she can trace her heritage back to Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor to Henry VIII. She also used to sell sex toys. And it is to this fine soupçon of life experience that I addressed my question, "Have you ever heard of a merkin..?"

Knowing of my propensity for springing strange words on unsuspecting chums in the middle of dinner, LJ should have been prepared. But caught by surprise, she choked on a sausage - in a nice way - and admitted that no, she didn't know of this term. When I explained the concept, a few moments of contemplative silence ensued followed by a worriesome snuffling, gagging noise.

After we'd attended to Binky-the-cat who was choking on a furball, we looked at each other, unsure of whether this had perhaps been Binky's erudite contribution to the conversation (feline furballs anyone?). Or maybe she'd just been laughing and got a biscuit stuck sideways. Anyway we thought it might be a fun subject for The Wordery. And so it is..

So it turns out that in this modern day-and-age, many people do not know what a merkin is. And when you tell them, after they've finished pissing themselves (usually with laughter), they typically reply, "Well why would you want to do that?" Lady Jane asked the same. But being an earthy and rather pragmatic sort, she correctly guessed the reason. Way too smart for their own good, these scions of English nobility.

So a merkin then, is a pubic wig. "Snort! So what's so funny about a public wig, Andy?" I hear you say. No - pubic. A pubic wig! Anyway I'm glad you asked. Allow me to elucidate.

According to the not-especially-pornographic-but-some-of-the-pictures-are-good Oxford Companion to the Body, the use of the 'pubic wig' dates back to the fifteenth century. Women would shave their pubic hair for personal hygiene and to address the onerous issue of pubic lice. They would then don a merkin (sounds like a fine name for a clandestine Spanish nobleman). Also, sex workers would wear a merkin to cover up signs of disease, such as syphilis. Double trouble.

Delving further into the subject, that literary stalwart The Oxford English Dictionary, holds that the first written use of the term dates to about to 1617 and the word probably originated from malkin a derogatory term of the time, for lower-class young women. It may have also been a variant of Marykin, a pet form of the female given name Mary. But we'd better not bring religion into this.

Now one might think in these 'enlightened' times the merkin had fallen into disuse; that perhaps it has become merely a thing of ridicule and jest. But further rummaging reveals that in (Hollywood) filmmaking, merkins may be worn by thespians to avoid inadvertent exposure of the genitalia during nude or semi-nude scenes, subject to contractual obligations of decency. Also a merkin may also be used when the actor or actress has less pubic hair than is required - I do LOVE this attention to detail.

But I will leave the final word to the inimitable Stanley Kubrick. In his film Dr Strangelove, the character of the President of the United States, played by Peter Sellers, is bald and is named "Merkin Muffley"..



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