From Debby Downers to Negative Nancies, certain names have attracted unflattering second meanings over the years. And in the overwrought, delicate age of COVID-19, Karens have emerged as the latest scapegoat.
The name has come a long way from its Scandinavian origins, when it was a derivative of Katherine that simply meant “pure”. These days it’s become more synonymous with an outdated, asymmetrical pixie bob cut reminiscent of early 2000s P!nk, along with a compulsive tendency to ask for the manager, combined with a general air of entitlement.
Its first usage as a term for someone being unreasonably demanding is unclear, but linguists say it likely developed from a couple of different usages: the first from African-American communities where generic names like Becky are used to denote privileged white women; the other from Reddit, via a parody of a man complaining about his ex-wife Karen and thus linking the name to the stereotype of the pushy, self-important person.
The moniker became a regular fixture here in Australian in July, when a middle-aged lady—who’s since become known as “Karen from Brighton”—whinged about Melbourne’s lockdown restrictions. Just days later, another so-called “Karen” hit back at a Bunnings Warehouse worker who asked her to wear a mask in-store.
Dr Amanda Laugesen is the director of the Australian Dictionary Centre, and credits the term’s popularity to social media and the current climate.
“‘Karen’ was popularised through memes and hashtags, but it has also been a response to particular privileged behaviours at a particular point in time,” she tells VICE via email. “The Australian examples relate to how people have responded to the pandemic and lockdowns, so it speaks to some of our debates and anxieties around how we behave.”
Dr Laugesen further explains that Karen was a popular girl’s name some 50 to 60 years ago, peaking in popularity in 1965, which is why most Karens are now middle-aged.
One such person is Karen Hayes, the CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria, who thought the whole “Karen” thing was a harmless joke after reading about it in a news article, only to realise later that it was a global phenomenon. Not long after, the overwhelming negative attention compelled her to fight back in the form of a hashtag: #NotAllKarens.
“I’d seen all these articles about Karens and I thought: hang on a second, there’s a lot of good Karens out there and I need to reclaim this name.”
After posting a message of solidarity to all Karens, the tweet went viral. Karens around the world replied with gratitude. So too did Susans.
“Us ‘Lazy Susans’ are standing right beside you,” wrote one supporter.
As a quick aside: the term “lazy Susan” refers to a rotating tabletop that helps share dishes around the table, also known as a “dumb waiter,” and has caused grief for Susans since 1917 when the device was advertised in Vanity Fair. More than a century later, the name is still a regular fixture in Ikea and Bunnings catalogues.
As for the history of her own name, Hayes says her mother simply liked the name Karen and chose to bestow it upon her, which was totally fine until now.
“I did not think in a million years my name would generate such a high level of interest,” she said. “I’ve always loved my name and I didn’t know many Karens growing up. But I certainly know a lot more now.”
Karen Chan works in retail and cops it every day from her friends—as well as, ironically, her manager.
“It’s become a running joke but it does get a little annoying at times,” she tells VICE after I spotted her name tag while I was out shopping. “I just laugh along because what else can you do? I just hope it’s a phase and some other name will soon be the target.”
Another Karen (who wanted to leave her surname out) is a self-described “epitome of Karen.”
“I’m middle-aged, white and a busybody,” she says. “I can see the irony of it and am just waiting for it to peter out… [But] I did once ask for the manager. They asked my name and we both just laughed and sorted it quickly, so I guess there are some positives.”
While many Karens have accepted their fate, however, people around the world are still taking steps to ensure those with the now-blasphemous name know exactly what the world thinks of them. There are dozens of groups on social media for non-Karens to vent their frustration, like “A Karen Affair”, “Fuck all Karens” and “Someone needs to come collect their Karen”.
Sixteen-year-old Eric Czaplewski is from Nebraska and started the Facebook group “Karens Gone Wild” after a Karen encounter.
“My cousin and I were riding lawn mowers through alleys and a woman called the cops because her husband was convinced that we hit her car, which we didn’t,” Czaplewski tells VICE over Facebook. “He didn’t see us and had no evidence, but now we can’t ride through alleys anymore… I was very annoyed because it was what we did in the summer to have fun.”
Czaplewski vendetta was ultimately quashed after the group reached about 111,000 members. It was shut down because too many “Karens” reported it.
“I don’t know any Karens personally, but I don’t think I will ever change my opinion about Karens,” says Czaplewski.
Just like birthdays and families, we don’t get to choose our names at birth. But while the term “Karen” has become embedded in our lexicon for now, linguists and Karens all over the world are certain it’s just a trend.
“These kinds of terms do tend to come and go… [as they] generally develop to address a lexical gap or describe a particular phenomenon,” Dr Laugesen explains.
Karen Hayes, for one, is banking on it, and desperately wants to shift the world’s opinion of her namesake.
“I think it’s just a phase,” she declares. “I know lots of fantastic Karens. I don’t want to muddy the good name.”
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