Think Johns, Dicks, and B.J.s have it bad? Try being named Maud in medieval England.
A lot of little
Henry has Hank. Margaret has Peggy. Susan, Sue. Daniel, Danny. We call these diminutive versions of names pet names or hypocorisms, if we want to get fancy about it. In English, we frequently form these names by shortening the given name and adding the –y sound to the end of it. Hence, Chrissie or Sammy. Hank and Peggy illustrate that there are other ways of forming such diminutives, of course. Such is the case for Maud. And this where things got a little messy–and hairy.
The name Matilda (or Mathilda)* produced a diminutive form, Maud(e), which became a first name in its own right. Come the Middle Ages, Maud took on its own pet forms, including Mal, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us. In the 13th and 14th centuries, it was somewhat common to add –kin to the end of names, ultimately yielding surnames like Jenkins or Watkins. Featured in other words like napkin, this suffix was taken or copied from the Dutch –ken, which itself may join two diminutives, –ke and –in. Thus, we get Malkin, a kind of quadruple diminutive.
Diminutives can be affectionate and endearing, but they can also be downright demeaning and dismissive. Poor Malkin. By the late 13th century, this already diminutive Malkin really got knocked down. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a malkin named a “lower-class, untidy, or sluttish woman,” especially a “servant or country girl.”
Perhaps due to the alleged dirty appearances of malkins or the dirty jobs they had to do, a malkin‘s name got further dragged through the dirt. Near the middle of the 15th century, a malkin named a “mop” or “bundle of rags” used for cleaning. The dirt kept piling up. Malkin was also used to name effeminate men, scarecrows, evil she-cats (as in Shakespeare’s Grimalkin, or greymalkin), rabbits, and, in Scottish regions, female genitalia. Which brings us to merkin.
Now, sex in the Middle Ages could quite literally be a dirty deed. Prostitutes in particular got afflicted with lice and venereal diseases, forcing them to shave their pubic hair. A shaved pubis could thus be bad for business (or a marriage), so women donned pubic wigs, called merkins, a custom the Oxford Companion to the Body traces back to the 15th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word merkin as such in 1617 and suspects it is a variant of this malkin. Later, merkin could refer to the female pudendum itself, then to artificial vagina, and, most recently, to a heterosexual man involved with a homosexual woman, a kind of lesbian beard. The exact link from the many shades of malkin to the specific meaning of merkin is unclear, but the sense of a dirty girl appears to have been transferred to her dirty bits.
Maud may yet get a break, however. The Oxford English Dictionary does leave open the possibility that merkin affixes –kin to a variation on a different name. Sorry, Mary.
Today, merkins fill a naughty niche and fulfill kinky fetishes, putting a whole new spin on “pet names.” They are also used to conceal, or in some instances, fill out full-frontal nudity on the screen. But, from the diminutive to the dialectical, from the dirty to the derogatory, the processes that shaped merkin prove that is far from a linguistic novelty or gag item.
*Lest any Maud feel her good name dragged through the mud with all this merkin business, etymology may redeem itself: Matilda, source of Maud, is a Germanic name that literally means “mighty in battle.”
For more on the language of prostitution, read Mededitor’s “Synonyms for prostitute.”