Sunday, April 04, 2021

'Mysterious Doings Re Merkin'

When I see the word merkin I think first of gerkin and then wonder if it’s a slangy elision of mercantile. Wrong on both counts. I come across it in a letter from Hugh Kenner to Guy Davenport dated October 20, 1963:

“Mysterious doings re merkin. A chap to whom I passed on your anecdote [from an earlier telephone conversation] re Craigie inventing it for the O.E.D. was able to demonstrate a) that it is in earlier dictionaries at least back to 1850; b) that the O.E.D. citations are authentic. Query, what Sledd can have been thinking of?”


Sir William Craigie (1867-1954) was a philologist and an editor of the OED. James Sledd (1914-1948) was a professor of linguistics and literature at Duke University when Davenport was a student there. The OED delivers the lubricious news in the form of a carefully worded definition of merkin: “An artificial covering of hair for the female pubic region; a pubic wig. Also: an artificial vagina.” The Dictionary’s earliest citation for the word dates from 1617. The etymology is speculative but merkin may derive from an earlier word, malkin, meaning “a typical name (usually derogatory) for: a lower-class, untidy, or sluttish woman, esp. a servant or country girl.” Citations for merkin are drawn from Edmund Wilson’s Night Thoughts (1961) and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973).


In Dr. Strangelove, the president, one of the three roles played by Peter [!] Sellers in the film, is named Merkin Muffley. (Which reminds me of an observation by one of my English professors, who relished the name Fanny Assingham in The Golden Bowl, calling it a “triple derrière.”)


[Kenner’s letter can be found in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner (Counterpoint, 2018), edited by Edward M. Burns, who supplies the information about Craigie and Sledd in his notes.]

ADDENDUM: An eagle-eyed reader notes that corrections are called for. Craigie's dates are 1867-1957, not as reported above, based on Burns' note. The same go for Sledd's: "He was born in 1914 and died in 2003 in Austin. He left Duke in 1948, which may be the source of the confusion." 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As a lubricious footnote to the word merkin: Back in the 70s there was a 2-woman team of groupies who called themselves "The Plaster Casters", who made casts of the erections of various rock stars, beginning with Jimi Hendrix. ROLLING STONE even ran a story about them. Their names were Cynthia Plastercaster and Trixie Merkin.