Issue 126, page 1

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Merkins, grimalkins and Maid Marians

This week a lady reader broached a topic which, when investigated, turned up such interesting material that we just had to share it with you.  The problem is the subject matter.  While it would certainly occasion tittering, snickers and unseemly remarks among the prurient multitudes, we trust our readers to maintain a scholarly demeanor as we discuss the origin of the word merkin.

Perhaps there are one or two readers out there who are unfamiliar with this curious word.  Currently, merkin is enjoying a certain popularity on Usenet as a synonym for American.  There may be many who use it innocently, assuming it to be merely a cute abbreviation, like btw for "by the way" and otoh for "on the other hand".  Anyway, didn't Lyndon Johnson pronounce American that way?  

Well, merkin goes back quite a bit earlier than Lyndon Johnson or even the United States.  In the 18th century it was defined thus: 

Merkin, counterfeit hair for women’s privy parts. 

- Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796

But why would anyone...?  Oh, never mind.

A century earlier, merkin signified a... well... [ahem] an anatomical replica in which lonely men found consolation. Some time in the early 1500s it came to mean "a woman's privy parts", per se, but before that, Merkin was just a girl's name.  Mawkin, Merkin and Malkin were all diminutives of Maud, itself a shortened form of Matilda (Germanic maht "might" + hild "battle").  Due to its widespread use by the lower class, the name Malkin was often applied to any peasant woman, much as Churl (i.e. Charles) was used for peasant men.

That is how a boy dancer, dressed as a girl in the traditional May-day morris dance, came to be called Malkin.  Sometimes, though, she (he?) was called Maid Marion.  Some say this name originates in a misunderstanding of Mad Morion - the name of a dance in which a morion (brimless hat or helmet) is worn.  Be that as it may, a woman called "Maid Marian" (usually a boy in women's clothes) appears in several May-day pageants across England.  Most famous of these is the Abbot's Bromley "horn dance" in which some dancers wear antlers known to be over 1,000 years old and others, armed with crossbows, pretend to shoot them.  All rather pagan, really.  

Another of these heathen characters who made an appearance at May-day was Robin Hood. Dressed in Lincoln green and with a name which recalls that other "green man", Robin Goodfellow (also known as Puck), ruler of the deep woods.  Those of us who know Maid Marian only from stories in which she plays second (if that) fiddle to Robin Hood might think it only natural that her leading man should put in an appearance.  In fact, the reverse is true. The character of Maid Marian appears independently in accounts of Mayday festivities long before she was woven into the Robin Hood legend.  Late medieval balladeers paired these two as lovers simply because they were both associated with May-day pageants. 

Another meaning of malkin was an old woman, especially if unpleasant.   Or it could be applied to any woman if she be slatternly, lewd or a drab.  Those poor medieval women - they had to walk a fine line between being disagreeable and too agreeable.  A popular proverb of the day declared that "there are more maids than maukin", though. 

Or malkin could be the name of a cat or, in Scotland, "a hare".  Often it was a demon.  Or a demon pretending to be a cat.  Around 1200, Sir Ralph of Coggeshall reported that "a spectre in the form of a female child said that it was called Malekin".  Between 1543 and 1661, Matthew Hopkins the "witchfinder-general" ordered the executions of three to four thousand women.  One of these was accused of having a dog called Grizzel-greediguts and a cat named Grimalkin, both of which were (of course) demons in disguise.  Grimalkin, is grey + malkin, that is, "a gray cat".   In a drama by Middleton [1604], Hecate, Queen of the witches, exits with the line "Now I goe, now I flie, Malkin my sweete spirit and I.".  Even Shakespeare used this cliché in Macbeth, when one of the three witches says "I come, Grey-malkin."

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