Anyone who spends more than 10 minutes on social media will run into her, or at least a reference to her: Karen. It's become a shorthand for an entitled, selfish, thoughtless white woman. While the name often refers to a stereotype, sometimes it refers to a specific person.
In May 2020, for instance, a woman dubbed the "Central Park Karen" called the police pretending to be threatened by a Black man after the man asked her to leash her dog in an area of the park where leashes are required. The entire episode was caught on video.
But where did the term come from? And why Karen?
Possible Karen Origins
There are a few suspects for why we use the name Karen. First is Amanda Seyfried's character from the 2004 movie "Mean Girls" who asks Lindsay Lohan's character Cady Heron "So if you're from Africa, why are you white?" Mean girl Gretchen Weiners responds with the meme-friendly retort, "Oh my god, Karen, you can't just ask people why they're white."
There was also a Dane Cook routine in 2005 about "the friend nobody likes," and her name was Karen. In December 2017, a subreddit called "F***YouKaren" appeared, where the poster obsessed over his ex. Thousands of people found his rants funny and followed along, eventually sharing Karen memes they'd created or found.
A quick search of Twitter shows that by April 2018, people were regularly calling out Karen for her questionable potato salad recipe. Word about her potato salad even reached Wakanda.
Cleve Evans, a professor who studies the history of names at Bellevue University, told writer Aja Romano at Vox that names have been used in this way for ages. "They are just another linguistic item that's possible to be associated with a particular group because of the perception that it's common among that group."
Evans also pointed out that the name "Karen" is a Danish form of "Katherine." That name derives from the Greek "Aikaterine," which is sometimes confused with the Greek word for "purity." People using Karen on social media probably didn't dig deeply enough to make that particularly ironic mistake.
Before Karen, there was Becky, whose cluelessness reigned from the 1990s into the 2000s, from Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" to Beyonce's "Sorry." In April 2018, "BBQ Becky" called the police because Black people were using a charcoal grill in a park. But the modern Karen is more than clueless. As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates put it on NPR's Code Switch, she is "aware there will be consequences if she summons help — and those consequences will fall most harshly on Black people, usually Black men."
Cases like these have changed the Karen stereotype from being someone who demands to see the manager to someone who calls the cops. Having harsh blond highlights is now the least of Karen's many issues.