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Colonial Dictionary


This section is an ongoing project dedicated to the words of the Colonial Era. Granted, many of these words would not be used at the local tavern, but may well have been employed in more learned circles. In addition to words used then that are not used now, we also include words that may still be around whose meanings have changed since early America.

Whenever possible, we try to provide a full etymological background of each entry, as well as examples of usage from then-current literature.

Though we use a wide variety of resources for this project, we'd be remiss not to mention Dictionary of Early English by Joseph T. Shipley (Introduction by Mark Van Doren), which you can find in its entirety HERE, readable online, or as a downloadable .pdf file...

Please Contact Us if you have any additions (that we haven't added yet -- this is a work-in-progress) or corrections to these entries...we hope you find this Colonial Dictionary interesting and useful.

-- The Colonial Sense Team


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WordDefinition

Merkin

This is a variant of malkin, a diminutive of Maud. Malkin became a general term of contempt, meaning a slattern; then it was applied to a mop or (in the navy) to a sponge on a stick, for cleaning cannon; also to a scarecrow or grotesque effigy. It was also used as a name for a witch (in Shakespeare's MACBETH, 1605, Grimalkin, gray malkin), hence, for a cat. In the form merkin, a pussy, it was used for the female "pudendum" and also (15th to 18th century) for a wig or counterfeit hair for a woman's privy parts. Just as the small-pox (so common that, in the 18th century, servants were sought that had already recovered from the disease, hence could not contract it and infect their masters) disfigured the face, so the great pox often left traces farther down, which a merkin might mercifully mask.

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