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.
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.
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.
The term merkin is used frequently in literature, film, music, and art as an inside joke. Several examples of this include:
A.G. Schneiderman Obtains $410 Million Settlement with J. Ezra Merkin in Connection with Madoff Ponzi Scheme Madoff Middleman Will Return Hundreds of Millions of Dollars to Investors and Charities Schneiderman: This Settlement Is a Victory for Justice and Accountability for Many Victims of Madoff's Ponzi Scheme
Jun 25, 2012; NEW YORK, NY -- The following information was released by the office of the New York Attorney General: In one of the largest...