Saturday, June 16, 2007

Proud to be a Merkin?

[[This post should probably be rated PG-13 if there were such ratings for blogs, so be warned this topic may not be for dinner time reading with the kids--or grandparents! And yes, I've deliberately not posted pictures, though some simple Googling will find what you want.--jt]]

Given the unpredictableness of my schedule working with folks back in Washington DC on Friday nights, we usually don't plan much for those evenings--it's often movie night or channel surfing on the TV. One show we're amused by, and that I doubt would make primetime in the U.S., is BBC Two's Balderdash & Piffle, in which a host and her "wordhunters" try to determine the earliest usages of words and then submit their results to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, who judge whether to revise the OED's entries for the words. For example, one night we watched the show tackled the origins of "loo" and when "domestic" first became a police term for a fight among a couple at home (Show's website is here)

Now last night's show was rather...hmm,x-rated. In fact, that was the title of the episode. (Easily offended blog readers might want to stop now! This is your second warning) The theme was sex-related phrases and the first one was "marital aids". If you don't know what that refers to, I'm not telling you here! The word hunters initially traced its use to advertisements in the first Playboy-like mens magazines in the 1960s and then back a bit further.

They also tried to chase down when "kinky" began to mean sexually perverted and not simply curly. But the star word of the show was "merkin", whose story was told by the appropriately named burlesque star Immodesty Blaise. Neither Katie or I had ever heard it, so here's the short OED entry, via wikipedia:

merkin (first use, according to the OED, 1617) is reported to be a pubic wig, worn by prostitutes after shaving their genitalia to eliminate lice or to disguise the marks of syphilis. A similar, though anachronistic, claim not made in OED is that merkins were worn for nude stage appearances. ...

The story cites various origins for the word, including an old term, "malkin", for prostitutes. There's not a big market for merkins today. The OED, however, claims merkins are essential gear for drag queens, although the Guardian newspaper quotes a celebrity fashion designer challenging that in a 2003 article.
"I know a bit about merkins, but I don't know anyone who wears one and won't be designing one myself," says Red or Dead founder Wayne Hemingway. "I can't see them making a comeback, but it is a bloody good word."
Among other details on merkin's lurid history, the show noted that Cole Porter had rhymed the word with Sarah Perkin in a tune. Blaise also amusingly claimed that the word has now become slang for folks from the United States. Putting on a bad Texas accent, she slyly cited George Bush as saying "I'm proud to be a merkin". Ha! Who says reading the dictionary can't be fun.


P.S. In one of the odder Google search finds I've made, Texas Longhorn fans have accused ESPN college football commentator Lee Corso of wearing a merkin. See this link where I found the picture below. KT says the insult stems from a feud a Dallas radio station has with Corso.

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