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A merkin fist(first use 1617) is a pubic wig, originally worn by prostitutes after shaving their genitalia.


There are many different ways of wearing a merkin, although most involve placing the merkin on the pubis or the scrotum.

In Hollywoodmarker film-making, merkins are currently used in films where they are worn by actors and actresses to prevent inadvertent exposure of the genitalia during nude or semi-nude scenes. If a merkin was not worn, it would be necessary to restrict the shot to exclude the genital area; with the merkin in place brief flashes of the crotch can be used if necessary. The presence of the merkin protects the actor from inadvertently performing 'full-frontal' nudity – some contracts specifically require that nipples and genitals be covered in some way – which can help ensure that the film achieves a less restrictive MPAA rating. A merkin is also used if the actor has less pubic hair than required for the role, as in the case of Kate Winslet in the film The Reader or the nude dancing extras in The Bank Job.


The Oxford Companion to the Body dates the origin of the pubic wig to 1450. Women would shave their pubic hair and wear a merkin to combat pubic lice, and prostitutes would wear them to cover up signs of disease, such as syphilis. The term is also applied to decorative – typically sequinned – patches commonly sold in sets with nipple tassels or "pasties", which are enjoying new popularity as part of the costume of new burlesque adult entertainment, and, according to NSOED, is also applied to fake vaginas.

"A short and curly history of the merkin" in The Guardian provided a partial history of the merkin. It highlighted "comedy terrorist" Aaron Barschak's flashing of a merkin to onlookers. It has also been suggested that when male actors played female parts onstage, they would cover their genitals with a merkin so they could expose themselves as women in bawdy scenes.

Origin of term

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language the term stems from a corruption of the obsolete word malkin, meaning a lower-class woman or mop, which is derived from a diminutive of the personal name Mary (Mall, Moll and Malkin probably come from 'Mary'). The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary concurs in this derivation.

Other usage

The term can be used in an obscure sense to refer to the vulva. In Europe, "merkin" has also been in common usage as a jocular term for an American since the 1960s (as it sounds like the half-swallowed pronunciation of "American" by some Americans, particularly President Lyndon Johnson). The OED reports that the term has become common internet slang for Americans or American English.

Merkins in popular culture

The term merkin is used frequently in literature, film, music, and art as an inside joke. For example, in Stanley Kubrick's black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the President of the United States is named Merkin Muffley. There is also a more prominent example in the 1969 film Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?.

More recently the removable sheepskin headband found on the inside of safety hardhats are referred to as merkins by many in the mining industry of Western Australiamarker.


  1. Oxford English Dictionary
  2. Duchovny, David DVD commentary for Stephen Soderberg's 'Full Frontal'
  3. Oxford Companion to the Body Oxford University Press, 2002
  4. Withycombe, E. G. (1950) The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names; 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press; pp. 200-202 (Malkyn is found in the Coventry Mystery Plays)
  5. Matilda according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (fourth edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin
  6. New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Oxford University Press, 1997
  7. Murray, J. A. H., et al. (eds.) A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles: [1st] Supplement (1933) - Merkin
  8. See this Random House Word of the Day entry, this [alt.usage.english FAQ Alternative Usage in English: Merkin] and this Straight Dope article

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