‘No longer an easy name’: A history of Karen

Social media has seen this once inoffensive name turn into something a lot more problematic. Henry Goldblatt reveals how this happened

Sunday 09 August 2020 13:14 BST
People hold placards during a Black Lives Matter rally in Leeds on 14 June
People hold placards during a Black Lives Matter rally in Leeds on 14 June (Getty)

Ask a woman called Karen what she used to think of her name, and you’ll hear phrases like “generic”, “perfectly serviceable” and “an easy name”.

In 2020, Karen is no longer “an easy name”. Once popular for girls born in the 1960s, it then became a pseudonym for a middle-aged busybody with a blonde choppy bob who asks to speak to the manager. Now the moniker has most recently morphed into a symbol of racism and white privilege.

A “Karen” now roams restaurants and stores, often without a mask during this coronavirus era, spewing venom and calling the authorities to tattle, usually on people of colour and often putting them in dangerous situations. And while this archetype had previously been called “Permit Patty” or “BBQ Becky,” “Karen” has stuck.

In fact, many news reports don’t even bother to use a woman’s actual given name. Whitefish Karen (named for her town in Montana) coughed on a couple when they called her out for not wearing a mask inside a grocery store. Kroger Karen, named after the supermarket chain, blocked a black mother’s car so the woman couldn’t leave the market’s parking lot. San Francisco Karen called the police on a Filipino man stencilling “Black Lives Matteron his own property.

And, of course, the Queen of Karens – Amy Cooper, also known as Central Park Karen – threatened and fabricated accusations against a black man after he politely asked her to put her dog on a leash, as park rules stated.

For some women with the name Karen, these videos have made them outraged, of course, but also, at times, ashamed.

“I remember hearing about names like Becky and thinking, ‘What if this was my name? How would it feel?’” says Karen Scholl, a 47-year-old writer in Columbus, Ohio, with whom I worked at a college newspaper more than 20 years ago. “It’s just so embarrassing, honestly. But I can’t get bent out of shape. I have no control over it. There are people losing their lives every day. If it’s the only thing I have to be upset about in this world, then good for me.”

Amy Cooper aka Central Park Karen
Amy Cooper aka Central Park Karen (Christian Cooper/AP)

Karen Chang, a Bay Area resident who works in business management, had shrugged off early memes, but then the Cooper video changed everything for her.

“It was very upsetting, but I would sacrifice my name for the visibility and awareness that incident generated,” says Chang, who is Asian American. Indeed, she may do just that. She said she’s considering changing her name to “KC” after she and her fiance eventually wed. “It has always been a term of endearment.”

Chang may be able to change her name, but if one San Francisco Board of Supervisors member, Shamann Walton, has his way, a version of “Karen” will be immortalised into city law.

In early July, Walton introduced the Caren (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) Act (presumably he couldn’t come up with a suitable word that began with K). The bill would change the city’s code to punish people who call 911 and file false, racially biased complaints.

That’s a step too far for Karen Ortiz-Orband, a Boston-area nurse who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent. She supports the contents of the proposal but emailed Walton’s office urging him to reconsider its title.

Karen is kind of a harsh sound that you can really spit out. And that aligns with the kind of person we are thinking of when we talk about ‘a Karen’

“I asked him to be mindful of the fact that there are women named Karen and people aren’t differentiating between the two. And by naming this bill as he has, he’s doing exactly what the metaphorical Karen is doing: creating an opportunity for discrimination,” says Ortiz-Orband, who is in her late forties.

And before you think: “That’s so Karen to complain about Caren,” Ortiz-Orband asks you to imagine if it were your name.

“It’s one thing to make memes,” she says. “It’s another when you start applying it to laws. You’re villainising a name that people actually have, and you’re putting these people at risk. When a woman acts like that name, you should use her correct name.”

Karen Gormandy, a literary agent and arts studio manager in New York City, says she doesn’t take it personally when she hears her name used in these contexts “because I assign that meme to white people. I’m totally disconnected from it. I’m on the receiving end of this misbehaviour,” Gormandy, 61, says. “I feel as a person of colour I don’t need to apologise and explain my name.”

Yet she says people sometimes avoid using her name when speaking to her. “Some people use Becky instead,” she says, laughing.

But why the name Karen?

Robin Queen, chair of the linguistics department at University of Michigan, has looked closely at this question, and her exploration led her to, of all people, comedian Dane Cook.

Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Seyfried in ‘Mean Girls’
Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Seyfried in ‘Mean Girls’ (Paramount/Rex)

His 2005 comedy album contains a riff called “The Friend Nobody Likes”: “There is one person in a group of friends that nobody likes,” Cook said, using an expletive to emphasise how much they are, in fact, disliked. “They basically keep them there to hate their guts. When that person is not around the rest of your little base camp, your hobby is cutting that person down.” As an “example” of this person, he describes a woman named Karen.

Other antecedents include Amanda Seyfried’s vacant Karen in Mean Girls who racistly spouts to Lindsay Lohan’s Cady: “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” A parody account on Reddit from late 2017 based on the rants of a spurned husband is also often cited as an early driver and highlights the sexism of the “Karen” trope.

Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent for the Code Switch podcast on NPR, says Karen’s roots are anchored deep in American folklore. Bates – who embarked on this research not because of her name but because the phenomenon was “a convergence of gender, race, class, social upheaval and social media in this great big tornado” – pointed to the term “Miss Ann” from the antebellum and Jim Crow periods.

African Americans used the term as code “to refer to these unreasonable white women”, Bates says. She described Miss Ann as “a woman who knew her place in society, was complicit in maintaining it, and who was at the upper end of the hierarchy. Even if she was a nice Miss Ann, she was still upholding this system that said, ‘White womanhood above all else, except white manhood.’”

Is it ‘Karen’ to try to protect the name Karen?
Is it ‘Karen’ to try to protect the name Karen? (ITV)

Researchers also point to the demographic characteristics of the name Karen. According to social security data, Karen soared in popularity in the 1960s, peaking as the third-most-popular baby name of 1965, but never had a resurgence. The archetype is meant to evoke a woman of a certain age, but then again, Linda, Cynthia or Susan would, too.

That’s where the Karen theories get geekily fascinating. Miriam Eckert, who has a doctorate in linguistics and lives in Boulder, Colorado, says that the word “Karen” contains what’s known as a “voiceless plosive”.

“That’s the K sound at the beginning of the word,” Eckert says. “When you say some consonants, like K or a T, there’s a complete blockage of airflow and a sudden release – whereas a name like Cynthia has no stops at all. Karen is kind of a harsh sound that you can really spit out. And that aligns with the kind of person we are thinking of when we talk about ‘a Karen’.”

But will it always? In 2018 – the latest year for which data is available – Karen ranked as the 635th most popular girl’s name, alongside Elaine and Dallas. “Nobody is going to name their kid this now,” Gormandy says. “It’s just going to disappear, and then somebody not knowing the history of any of this might decide it’s a cool name.”

Queen, the linguistics expert, agrees. “Maybe in 50 years or so it might come back.”

In the meantime, she thinks it could at some point fade from the lexicon. “The meaning gets so broad that it’s going to stop having the same power to make a particular critique,” she says, pointing to examples like “basic”, “hot mess” and “Negative Nancy” that faded from the lexicon.

As a moniker, she says: “I would be surprised to find it around a decade from now.”

© New York Times

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