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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. --Andrew Scheinman, Los Angeles

Your sources on something like this necessarily aren't the most reputable crew in the world. In fact, I blush to admit, I have been fishing for clues once again on the Internet. I do not 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 is 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 syphilis, so the well-to-do used wigs.

Before penicillin was around to ease the lives of the promiscuous, merkins 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. Merkins disguised this.

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 by wearing what amounts to a flesh-colored pantie with hair on the front. They appear to the patrons of the establishment to disrobe completely but don't really.

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 key 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? I invite further comment. Results to be summarized.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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