Occasionally I go on a word journey and it takes me to very unexpected places. Sometimes I even cross my own path in these travels. That’s what happened this week. I had the occasion to look up two words that seemingly have nothing to do with one another:
maudlin—overly tearful and emotional
merkin—a wig for the pubic region
I was amazed to find out that they—and many others, as we shall soon see—come from the same source. The culprit is Mary Magdalene.
Magdalene is a New Testament figure probably best known for weeping over the tomb of Jesus. Her name has been transformed and adapted into many forms in different languages. By the time it entered English, it was Maudelen. From there, it’s an easy jump to Maude. Madge¹ is an adaptation, as well as Madeleine, Matilda (and its spelling variants), and of course Magdalena, frequently shortened to Magda in Spanish. Readers may be able to point to additional forms in their own languages. Please leave a comment if you know any others!
It’s easy to see the “teary” connection in the word maudlin because of the biblical description of Magdalene, but there is another line of descendant meanings unrelated to her grief.
There is a separate New Testament story that describes an interaction that Jesus has with an unnamed woman who offers him a drink of water at a well. Jesus informs her, a la John Edwards, that he knows she’s had five husbands and is also currently shacking up without the benefit of matrimony. We’re pretty used to this type of behavior these days, but back then, to be so shamelessly dissolute was frowned upon.
While the reader is not told who the woman at the well is, a tradition has developed that she and Mary Magdalene are the same person. In other passages, it’s stated that Jesus exorcised Mary Magdalene of seven demons. What else would cause a woman to act like Liz Taylor? Demonic possession, of course! So it stands to reason.
Her association with this profligate behavior resulted in a line of Magdalene-derived words related to women and sluttishness. The ones I’ve discovered follow (definitions from OED):
mab—(obsolete) a slattern; a promiscuous woman
maud—(obsolete) an old woman; a hag
malkin—(archaic, regional) a typical name for a lower-class, untidy or sluttish woman
moll—(rare) a girl or woman, especially a prostitute
And finally, merkin. Before antibiotics, mercury was used to treat STDs like gonorrhea and syphilis. Mercury could cause hair loss, and STDs could case genital scarring. Hair might also be shaved to rid oneself of pubic lice. A merkin² could be used to disguise one’s bald real estate so as not to alert a lover/customer to these conditions.
It’s odd to think, isn’t it, that you can pay $75 for a Brazilian wax, then purchase a merkin to cover up your investment?
¹ “You’re soaking in it!”
² Against your better judgment, you may wish to visit the Facebook page of NAME—the National Affiliation of Merkin Enthusiasts.