What is a merkin?

Dear Cecil:

What exactly is a "merkin"? Ever since the word was thrust into my consciousness it's been tormenting me. My Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the "female pudendum," which seems a trifle sedate, given the listed quote of 1714, "This put a strange Whim in his Head; which was, to get the hairy circle of her Merkin … This he dry'd well and comb'd out, and then return'd to the Cardinal, telling him, he had brought Saint Peter's Beard." And it's downhill from there. The OED "b" definition says a merkin is a "counterfeit hair for women's privy parts," and another dictionary calls it a "pubic hair wig." Sorry, but these explanations defy understanding. I mean, I've heard of niche markets, but this is ridiculous. My own interest in the word isn't just academic, as I'd like to make use of the fine quote of 1680, "Or wear some stinking Merkin for a Beard," but I want to make damn sure I know what the original item was.

Cecil replies:

Cecil doesn’t have the most reputable sources for this kind of thing. In fact, I blush to admit, I’ve been fishing for tips once again on the Internet. I don’t want to give the impression I spend all my time on the Internet, but in the right hands it is a wondrous tool, and in the wrong hands it’s an even better one. Here’s what’s turned up so far:

  • A merkin is somebody who lives in Merika. (Har!)
  • They used to shave off all the pubic hair as a cure for syphillis, so the well-to-do used wigs.
  • Before penicillin was around to ease the lives of the promiscuous, these were used to cover up any sores prostitutes may have obtained in the line of duty.
  • They used to treat the syphilitic with mercury, which caused baldness.
  • The merkin is for women with no pubic hair. Some people just don’t develop hair down there, and this can be embarrassing.
  • In days of old a common problem was lice. One of the ways people dealt with this was to shave all the hair off their bodies, including arms, legs, and pubes. Wigs became very popular. Pubic wigs caught on slowly, starting among the kinkier set, but eventually became halfway respectable.
  • A merkin is a crotch wig for both men and women and is usually worn on the outside. Have you ever seen a Scot in full regalia? That little fur “purse” in front is a merkin.
  • In a country of mainly dark haired people, a prostitute may wear a blond merkin to be unusual and therefore more desirable. (Got this from a dictionary of sex.)
  • One of the more recent uses is to allow exotic dancers to comply with local laws prohibiting full nudity. They wear what amounts to a flesh-colored panty with hair on the front, appearing to the patrons of the establishment to disrobe completely without actually doing so.
  • In a sci fi story by John Varley called something like “The Barbie Murders,” a group of women gives up individuality (and sex) and undergoes surgery to become perfect nonsexual beings resembling Barbie dolls. This involves losing genitals, pubic hair, etc. One Barbie goes back to being a woman for a night, painting on nipples and using a merkin.

Fascinating, ja? Erudite answers from around the globe, and not one of them duplicates another. Also, one is still left with a nagging question: who’s a merkin supposed to fool? By the time you get to the level of intimacy where somebody is going to see whether you have pubic hair or not, your range of observation, as we might say, is such that a wig is not going to make for a very convincing masquerade, strippers possibly excepted. VOICE FROM THE NET: Yeah, but during the period when merkins were popular, the degree of intimacy among the upper class was low even during sex. ME: What’s that supposed to mean, you had your valet do it for you? You sent it in by mail? Clearly more investigation needs to be done.

Real Scotsmen carry purses

Dear Cecil:

Despite what that imbecile on the Internet may have told you, the “fur purse” in front of a Scot’s kilt is not a merkin but a sporran. It is simply a pouch and has no sexual significance.

Cecil replies:

Reminds me of a joke.

Q: Why do Scotsmen wear kilts?

A: Because sheep can hear zippers.

Keep on merkin

Dear Cecil:

The topic of merkins came up a while ago in a mailing list of word fans on the IBM internal network, and a participant told of going to a bar that offered prizes to amateur nude dancers. There were a lot of rules; some made sense (no touching the customers), some didn’t (pubic hair required). A woman in the party considered going up, but she shaved herself; however, the management provided merkins. She said they looked like little mustaches. The whole scene was a little too weird for her, so she decided not to dance.

Cecil replies:

Thanks for sharing, Phil. I’ll have you know that Cecil recently conspired to give his good buddy Charlie the architect a merkin for his birthday, something  for which, Charlie’s girlfriend assured me, Charlie had developed a desperate craving ever since having read about merkins in this column some months ago. Since the local sex-toy shop was fresh out (and yes, we thought of the Merkin-tile Exchange joke, too), we decided to improvise by presenting him with a large industrial mop dyed a tasteful bevy of dayglo colors.

The classiest part of the whole production, however, was the instructions. Anne provided the safety tips and owner registration card (“It is imperative that we know how to reach you promptly if we should discover a safety problem that could affect you”); I added hints on operation and use. Sample:

Confirm that merkin is the proper size before wearing. Use of an improperly sized merkin may result in paralysis or death.

On first use your merkin may be stiff and difficult to attach properly. Do not be embarrassed to ask for assistance. For best results we recommend that four persons be recruited for this purpose — one to grasp either leg, one to apply the merkin, and one to act as lookout.

Once the merkin is in place, it should be appropriately lubricated using light sewing machine oil, petroleum jelly, #2 fuel oil, or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter when on sale at Safeway. Do not use so much lubricant that it dribbles in the street. Merkin should not ‘squish’ when in use.

Your merkin is highly flammable. Do not use if temperature rises above 73 degrees. If merkin ignites while in use, seek assistance by running into the nearest street and shouting, “I’M ON FIRE GODDAMIT.” Do not panic. The number of people who die as a result of burns from a flaming merkin is surprisingly small.”

We had it delivered to the office. Unfortunately the firecracker didn’t go off. But it was a birthday Charlie won’t soon forget.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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