We Need To Talk About The Name Karen (As Written By One)

Photo: SARYMSAKOV ANDREY / Shutterstock
woman drinking coffee

I’ve resisted writing this for a long time — but the time has come. 

The name Karen has just hit rock bottom in the popularity stakes. In the US last year, the name plunged to its lowest US ranking since 1927. In 2020, only 325 babies were named Karen.

Even then, I wondered who these (arguably cruel) 325 parents were? Why would anyone want their baby to turn into an adult who cringes when a barista calls their name LOUDLY because their coffee is ready?

Okay, I’m making this personal — because it is. In recent years, “Karen” has become a popular meme for a particular type of middle-class white woman who exhibits “entitled” behaviors that stem from privilege.

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Obnoxious Karen has a short, choppy (usually blonde) “let me speak to the manager” hair, is casually racist, rude to all service workers, and believes it’s “fine” to touch pregnant stomachs or fondle black people’s hair. She is a soccer mom. She drives a Tesla.

Coronavirus Karen is anti-science, anti-vax, and “forgets” her mask when taking public transport.

So, you see, she’s made life a little hard for us Real Life Karens.

What’s in a name?

Were you called derogatory names as a child?

Lots of my clients — I'm a clinical psychologist — have and it can leave scars, even set up core beliefs that follow them into adulthood.

Research tells us derogatory name-calling is a damaging form of bullying: It can affect a person’s confidence, identity, and wellbeing. It can impact mood and prompt internal criticism.

But when the name you’re being slammed with is your own? Mean people are calling me Karen! Don’t you dare call me Karen! Complaining about that won’t get much traction. Nor will going to speak to the principal.

Originally, the name Karen was a Danish form of Katherine. It is said to mean “pure” In Japan, it means “flower” or “water lily". But in a twist of irony, Karen has lost both her purity and her flower power. She’s now a generational slur.

We Karens can push back all we like but names do matter: Initial impressions “build a strong basis for processing information about a person”, according to the Social, Psychological, and Personality Science Journal. And our names are one of the first pieces of the information people get about us.

I’ve become acutely conscious of how often you’re asked to say your name out loud — on the phone, in Zoom meetings, in shops, at the coffee cart — everywhere. (I have tried giving another name at the coffee cart but then I forget who I am and my coffee goes cold). I’ve never been one to ask to speak to the manager but now the thought horrifies me.

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My daughters have jumped in on the act:

Mom, don’t be such a Karen! (when I had the audacity to want to return a book I’d been given but already owned to a store).

Pulling a few Karen moves today, aren’t you? (when I was driving weirdly. I admit I was, but that’s no reason bully me with my own name).

My daughters won’t listen to my plaintive cries that this is hurtful for my sense of self. That they are lowering my mood. That they are striking at the core of who I am. It makes me wish I’d named them after me. Both of them. Karen II and Karen III.

I know, I’m supposed to look for the upside in all this, to find the Higher Learning. And there is one: in the US at least, the Karen meme has enabled a new kind of discourse about racism. That’s a proud thing for us Karens. It doesn’t help us in shops, but we can live with that.

Unless, perhaps, we’re single. Because Karen has also plunged in the dating ratings. Dating app Wingman last year revealed that women with the name Karen have been finding it more difficult to get matched with someone. In 2020, compared to 2019, matches for women named Karen dropped by over 20 percent.

Well, at least I’m not in the dating game, I tell myself in my more difficult moments, pitying those who are, and trying to count my blessings.

And then I remember something: I’m married to a Kevin. Kevin is the name of the man least likely to get a date. According to some studies; no one should start a romantic relationship with a Kevin. Call me vindictive, but there’s a great deal of comfort in that.

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Karen Nimmo is a clinical psychologist based in Wellington, New Zealand, She is a media commentator, blogger, and the author of several books including Busy as F*ck, 10 on-the-couch sessions to diagnose, explain and treat busy as f*ck people everywhere.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.