New York Times, August 2021
Words are haunted things. However unmoored from origins, they still carry within them the old meanings, like a debris of code that resists deletion or a latent brood of cicadas, waiting to surface.
In recent years, “Karen” has become an epithet for a type of interfering, hectoring white woman, the self-appointed hall monitor unloosed on the world, so assured of her status in society that she doesn’t hesitate to summon the authorities—demanding to speak to the manager or calling the police—for the most trivial and often wholly imaginary transgressions. The name is not entirely arbitrary: It’s a relic of an older, more conservative America, catapulted from relative obscurity to the 20 most popular choices for newborn girls in 1941 and hovering near the top of the list for three decades. (At its height of fashion in 1965, it ranked third only after those stalwarts Mary and Lisa, which means most of today’s Karens are in their mid-50s.) Ubiquity rendered Karen generic, an emblem of conformity, granting her the safety of being thoroughly average. By 2020, its usage, already in severe decline before its hijacking as a term of mockery, had fallen to pre-Depression levels.
But long before the name Karen infiltrated American culture, it was a Danish contraction of Katherine, which is attributed variously (onomasts are uncertain) to the Greek “katharos” — “pure, clean, unsullied” — or to Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, who, surrounded by watchdogs, presides over places of transition: crossroads, borders, graveyards. What is left of these roots in the modern Karen? Certainly, she sets herself up as a guardian of purity, patrolling boundaries at a time when a white-dominated society is transforming into a multicultural one and condemning disruptions of what she sees as the proper order.
This manifests alarmingly in confrontations with people of color, particularly Black people, as recorded in numerous videos posted on social media, including those of Karens who have called 911 to voice suspicions about an 8-year-old Black girl selling bottles of water on the sidewalk in San Francisco, a 9-year-old Black boy in a deli in Brooklyn whose backpack bumped against a white woman (“I was just sexually assaulted,” she told the police) and a Black man entering his own apartment building in St. Louis, all in 2018; a Black uniformed UPS worker delivering packages in Atlanta in 2019; and, in 2020, a Black man bird-watching in Central Park and Black children swimming in a pool at the hotel where their family was staying in Williamston, N.C.