Daily Press (Sunday) - - Out + About -

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,” Cook said, 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, se­nior cor­re­spon­dent for the “Code Switch” pod­cast on NPR, said 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 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.’ ”

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-most­pop­u­lar 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, said that the word “Karen” con­tains what’s known as a “voice­less plo­sive.”

“That’s the K sound at the be­gin­ning of the word,”

Eck­ert said. “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.’ ”

The fu­ture of ‘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 said. “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, agreed. “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 said, point­ing to ex­am­ples like “ba­sic,” “hot mess” and “Neg­a­tive Nancy” that faded from the lex­i­con.

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

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