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  • Writer's pictureKaren Herbert

Karen Origins

Karen memes are everywhere, and never put Karens in a flattering light. I was affronted when I first found my name used as a negative descriptor - I was named "Most Considerate" of my senior class after all. The Millennials in my family had no explanation and my niece even admitted to recently calling herself a Karen in a text describing how she was angered in a fast food line. Apologetic as she read me the text, she assured me that I was "not that kind of Karen."


karenmugs, kindkaren, nicekaren
I need this mug, too!

Now in everyone's dictionary, Karen is being used as a negative descriptor of a white woman. According to Kelsey Bradshaw, author of "Animal Crossing to Zoom: Reflecting on our new lexicon "(January 2021), Karen is just one of the many new words that have been added to our vocabulary during 2020. Bradshaw listed a total of twenty new words or phrases in common use, all of them related to the pandemic except for Defund the Police, Murder Hornets, and Karen. I noted it was the only new term singling out a common woman's name. Surely, I'm not on the same level as Murder Hornets?


"You know those videos of a woman screaming at grocery store workers after being told to put on a mask or leave the store? That is a Karen."


In "A Brief History of Karen," (July 2020) Henry Goldblatt wrote in The New York Times about the phenomenon. He interviewed several Karens about how they felt about their name's new meaning. Reactions were mixed.


"In 2020, Karen is no longer “an easy name.” Once popular for girls born in the 1960s, it then became a pseudonym for a middle-aged busybody with a blond choppy bob who asks to speak to the manager."


The most obvious reason is demographics. Those with the name Karen, statistically speaking, are white and middle-aged. I'm one of those Karens born during its height of popularity. Why Karen instead of other names? Let me describe examples of other names that could have been used and are well known in pop culture.


Here's a sample of the many Starbucks Karen memes I found:



But there are already two characters in pop culture that were annoyingly specific in ordering. The first, Nigel Crane, in the television show, Frasier, was certainly well known among all the baristas at the trendy new coffee shops opening up in Seattle in the 1990s.


Nigel Crane, Frasier Crane, male karens
Drs. Nigel & Frasier Crane, male Karens?

His order in this YouTube clip is not quite as detailed, but he's still quite precise about what he wants. The waiter is not impressed when he orders "double decaf, nonfat latte, with medium foam and a "whisper" of cinnamon on the top." When the beverage is delivered, Nigel bemoans the fact that instead of a whisper, there is a veritable "shout" of cinnamon. Isn't that a Karen?


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zs_hveAt5mg


Another memorable character with demanding orders was Sally, in When Harry Met Sally. Perhaps far more famous for another scene, she was also an exacting and difficult restaurant customer. The precise and lengthy way Sally orders becomes a recurring theme throughout the movie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxeeeSUFpmE


"I’ll have the chef salad with the oil and vinegar on the side and the apple pie à la mode. But I’d like the pie heated. And I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream just whipped cream but only if it’s real; if it’s out of the can, then nothing."

Karen in a restaurant, nicekaren, When Harry met Sally
From the movie, When Harry met Sally. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend!

Then, why didn't Nigel or Sally catch on for these memes instead of Karen? Or even other popular names from that time period like Linda or Susan? As a nice Karen, I'm still wondering why and despairing my chances of a descendant named after me. Robin Queen, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan wrote in a piece for The Conversation (June 12, 2020) how three threads seemed to converge to bring Karen to the forefront.


"The first comes from African American communities, where certain generic first names have long been a shorthand for “a white woman to be wary of because she won’t hesitate to wield privilege at the expense of others.” Around 2018, people started posting pictures of white women calling the police on the mundane activities of black people. These individuals got labeled with hashtags like #bbqbecky, #permitpatti, #golfcartgail, and #cornerstonecaroline."


These memes went viral and a few years ago mixed with two other trending threads. One was a comedy routine and the other was a post on the social media site, Reddit. Both called out Karens for what the writers considered poor behavior. All three threads weaving together might have caused the birth of the Karen memes.


A further reason may simply be the sound of saying K-a-r-e-n. Goldblatt (in "A Brief History of Karen") spoke with Miriam Eckert, Ph.D. (linguistics). Eckert said that Karen begins with a "voiceless plosive."


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


As a Karen, I can only hope to lead by a good example.

facebookkaren, tipyourserver, nicekaren
Internet's Best Karen asking for the manager.

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