A merkin (first use, according to the OED, 1617) is a pubic wig, originally worn by prostitutes after shaving their genitalia to eliminate lice or disguise the marks of syphilis. There are many different ways of wearing a merkin, although most involve placing the merkin on the vulva or the scrotum.
The term is also applied to decorative (typically sequinned) patches commonly sold in sets with nipple tassels or "pasties" and are enjoying new popularity as part of the costume of new burlesque adult entertainment.
Merkins are currently used in films where they are worn by actors and actresses to prevent inadvertent exposure of the genitalia during nude or semi-nude scenes. If no merkin were worn, it would be necessary to restrict the shot to exclude the genital area; with the merkin in place brief flashes of the crotch can be used if necessary. The presence of the merkin protects the actor from inadvertently performing 'full-frontal' nudity (their contract may specifically require that nipples and genitals are covered in some way), and can help ensure that the film achieves a more acceptable MPAA rating.
Houghton Mifflin's American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition describes the term's etymology as stemming from an "alteration of obsolete malkin, lower-class woman, mop, from Middle English; from Malkin, diminutive of the personal name Matilda."
It has also been suggested that, in the period when male actors played female parts, they would cover their genitals with a merkin so they could expose themselves as women in bawdy scenes.
A "short and curly history of the merkin" in The Guardian provided a partial history of the merkin. It highlighted "comedy terrorist" Aaron Barschak's flashing of a merkin to onlookers.
The term has also been dated to 1449. The merkin was used primarily to the purpose of detecting or deterring pubic lice.
A vertical aerodynamic fin called the Merkin first saw its use in Formula One on the Williams FW22A (2000) (as named by Chief Aerodynamicist Geoff Willis), although this name was changed to the more common name of "Forward Guide Vane" after higher authorities found out its true meaning.
"Merkin" is also used to refer to a male sex-toy in the humorous novels of Tom Sharpe. Both the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and The Joy of Sex define the Merkin as an "artificial vagina.
In gay slang, "merkin" may refer to a man who acts as the date for, or even marries, a lesbian — usually for the purpose of making her appear heterosexual for various social reasons. Compare with "beard": a woman who has a relationship with a gay man for the purpose of making him appear straight.
Merkins in popular culture
The term merkin is used frequently in literature, film, music, and art as an inside joke. Several examples of this include:
- The narrator, Humbert Humbert, in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955), recalls, "Although I told myself I was looking merely for a soothing presence, a glorified pot-au-feu, an animated merkin, what really attracted me to Valeria was the imitation she gave of a little girl."
- Pynchon, in Gravity's Rainbow, says, "He wears a false cunt and merkin of sable both handcrafted...by the notorious Mme. Ophir."
- The character of President Merkin Muffley, played by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is satirically named after this object. Coupled with his last name, "muff" being slang for pubic hair.
- The 1969 film Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? written by and starring Anthony Newley, is a veritable cornucopia of dirty-joke names. In addition to the two in the title, there's a character (played by Joan Collins), named Polyester Poontang.
- Pearl Jam and Neil Young released a two-song companion to Mirror Ball called "Merkin Ball".
- Australian talk show host Rove McManus jokes frequently on his show about merkins including wearing a shirt for the Merkins basketball team.
- "Merkin" is the name of a character in the Sandman comic book.
- Maynard James Keenan of Tool owns Merkin Vineyards in Arizona.
- "Merkin" has gained radical popularity among pageant contestants in the United States.
- In San Francisco, an event called Merkinstock was masterminded by producer Lu Read a.k.a. Fudgie Frottage as a spin-off of Lady Bunny's Wigstock. The first Merkinstock occurred in 1993 and a second in 1999 The event is scheduled to return in 2009.
- The name of the company in the Spike TV show "Factory" is Merkin
- In the animated show Family Guy, Joe is offered a Merkin by the recurring salesman character
- In the online podcast You Look Nice Today episode Peak Hair, merkins are discussed.
- There is also a MLB pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, named Merkin Valdez.
- In the television show The L Word, the character Jenny's book is reviewed unfavorably by a woman named Stacy Merkin. Jenny frequently refers to Stacy angrily as a "vagina wig."
- The merkin was featured on the CBS show The Ex List on October 3, 2008 that featured a blonde who shaved herself and her boyfriend thought it made her look like a little girl. She reversed her decision and installed a merkin.