Q&A: Why “Karen”?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, don't be such a “Karen”…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve noticed recently that a lot of people are getting called “Karens” for being selfish and stupid. Like this person. And this one. And yet almost none of them are actually called Karen. 

A: Yes, that does seem to be happening.

Q: I feel sorry for actual people named Karen. I know lots of perfectly nice Karens – what did they do to deserve this?

A: Is that a rhetorical question?

Q: No, I’d REALLY like to know why we’re suddenly calling people “Karens”!

A: Well, the definition of a “Karen” seems to be constantly evolving, and it’s also just the latest in a series of names over the years, especially in the USA.

Q: Why “Karen” though? Where did it start?

A: Okay, there are two things to discuss. First is a quick history of pejorative names, especially in the USA. 

Q: Pejorative?

A: It’s an adjective describing something that “expresses contempt or disapproval”. It comes straight from the Latin “pejor” – meaning ‘worse’.

Q: Got it.

A: An enduring example is calling someone a “Scrooge” from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Another, now obsolete, is “Uncle Tom” – once used to describe someone excessively subservient, from the 1852 slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the early 1900s, “Miss Ann” was common with African-American women to describe “uppity white women”. And then more recently, we’ve had “Becky” fill a similar role.

Q: Ah yeah, “Becky” rings a bell.

A: Beckys have popped up in novels such as 1848’s Vanity Fair and even yellow-haired Becky Thatcher in 1876’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. BUT…

Q: I like big BUTs…

A: Good segue, as it was indeed Sir Mix-a-lot’s 1992 song ‘Baby Got Backthat really kickstarted modern “Beckyism”. The opening of that song led to the name “Becky” being used to describe a particular group of women. At the height of its popularity, Merriam-Webster Dictionary even added a definition for “Becky”, listing it as “an epithet referring to a woman who is ignorant of her privileges and her prejudice”. 

Q: An epithet? Is that the thing that people with peanut allergies have?

A: Um, no, you’re thinking of an epiPen. An epithet is described by Macquarie Dictionary as “an adjective or other term applied to a person or thing to express an attribute”. Sometimes they’re good (e.g. Alexander “The Great”) but often they’re not.

Q: So that’s the history lesson. But when did “Karen” specifically become a thing?

A: There are some isolated cases of “Karen” being used like this as far back as 2004, but the main turning point appears to be a Reddit thread in 2017 by a disgruntled ex-husband whose wife took his house and kids. It quickly grew into a catch-all of complaints with half a million followers. This is also the first time we saw “Karen” defined in a negative way on Urban Dictionary – with common traits listed as, “will take the kids” and “demands to speak to the manager”.

Q: Is it still a race thing?

A: Yes and no. If you’re African American, it has somewhat replaced “Becky” to call out privilege or prejudice, as parodied in an April 2018 skit on Saturday Night Live (this also helped spread its popularity to a wider audience). It was also seen in the reaction to this racially-motivated case in New York’s Central Park in May 2020. However, now it seems that everyone is using the term.

Q: That Central Park woman (actually an “Amy”, but somehow now a “Karen”) was quite young. So it’s not just a middle-aged mum thing either?

A: The baby name “Karen” peaked in the 1960s and 70s – so you might think that points to it targeting a demographic similar to how “okay Boomer” is aimed at the “baby boomer” generation. Yet, being a “Karen” is more about behaviour than age or even gender (men have been called Karens too). Professors describe “Karen” personality traits as “entitlement, selfishness and a desire to complain; demanding the world exist according to them, with little regard for others.”

Q: Can-I-speak-to-your-manager Syndrome!

A: Precisely.

Q: Why does it feel like it’s suddenly everywhere though?

A: Social media and the dumpster fire that is 2020 has certainly helped; there’s just a lot of public outrage and protest about. However, the US especially has always seen cases of “BBQ Beckys”, “Permit Pattys” or “Cornerstore Carolines” – privileged women getting upset about non-issues. “Karen” just happened to be the current name when the whole planet suddenly realised, “you mean there’s a WORD for that kind of behaviour?”. And like always happens when you learn a new word, we’ve been finding lots of ways to insert it into casual conversation ever since.

Q: Being a “Karen” now seems synonymous with doing anything selfish and stupid. What about all those smart, respectful people actually named Karen!

A: Yes, it’s tough! This one seems to be sticking more than the others, but there is a chance that language and society will move on to its next ‘victim’ in time.

Q: One last thing. I know men can be called “Karen” too – but are there similar pejorative male names?

A: For some reason, “Chad” is often used for a ‘dumb male more interested in his appearance’. Meanwhile, a “Kyle” started out in 2015 to describe a video-gaming teenager with a short temper, but it has shifted to more along the “Karen” lines recently. 

Q: What name will be next?

A: Who knows. But for now, don’t be a “Karen” and wear a mask if that’s the law…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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