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.”