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A Brief History of ‘Karen’

  • August 02, 2020

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

But why the name Karen?

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

His 2005 comedy album contains a riff called “The Friend Nobody Likes”: “There is one person in a group of friends that nobody likes,” Mr. Cook says, using an expletive to emphasize 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, the senior correspondent for the “Code Switch” podcast on NPR, said Karen’s roots are anchored deep in American folklore. Ms. 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,” Ms. Bates said. 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.’”

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