Watching old episodes of The Simpsons and seeing the name of executive producer David Mirkin got me wondering: Just how did the term “merkin” arise? For those of you lucky or unlucky enough not to have contemplated the term, it refers to a public wig, which one can wear for a variety of reasons but which usually is worn to disguise the fact that one has recently her pubic hair shaved in order to rid herself of lice. (I say “her” because most definitions for “merkin” seem to specify that they’re for women, though I presume that such a product could work for men just as easily. I wonder if a special term for a man merkin must exist.) According to most sources, the term arises from an alteration of an out-of-use term “malkin,” which meant either “mop” or “lower-class woman,” which makes sense in that it would have been a lower-class woman who would have most likely pushed a mop. This source amuses me for two reasons. For one, I know someone with the last name “Malkin” and I need to tell her of this. For another, I feel like it would generally be al lower-class woman who would have need a merkin and that said merkin, being purchased with a mopwoman’s salary, would probably look like an old mop. The term “malkin,” in turn, comes from a Middle English diminutive term for the name “Matilda,” and I wonder if that “kin” suffix exists for the same reason that we might nickname our friend Sue “Suzykins.” You know, if we were awful.
That’s all very interesting, but I have to say that I’m sad the etymology I made up for myself for “merkin” turned out to be wrong. In my head, I supposed it would have been funny that someone who had reason to invent or market this accessories also had a mortal enemy by the last name of “Mirken” or “Merken” or “Mirkin” whom he shamed by permanently associating him with this horrible thing. Implausible, I know, but not impossible. Just last night, I was reading Mary Roach’s Bonk, in which she claims that the term “G-spot” was coined by sex researcher Beverly Whipple, who extensively studied this ladyparts holy-of-holies. (I suppose one could say that Whipple discovered the G-spot, but that would only be true in the sense that Columbus “discovered” the Americas. Clearly, both the G-spot and the Americas were known and enjoyed by people centuries before Whipple and Columbus came along, respectively.) Roach claims that Whipple actually considered calling the discovery the “Whipple Spot,” but decided against it — citing concerns for her children and the other Whipples of the word — and instead named it in honor of pioneering gynecologist Ernst Grafenberg. But, on that note, I suppose the G-spot is a far more positive thing to have associated with your name than a thing that prostitutes wear to disguise the fact that they were recently rid of a social disease.
Regardless of where “merkin” actually came from, I don’t doubt that the Mirkens and Merkens and Mirkins of the world have suffered as a result of its existence.