When MAGA-capped zealots barrelled up to Philadelphia City Hall last week and the state capitol in late April, demanding haircuts and eat-in dining and acute respiratory infections for all, their mascot was not Donald Trump or Sean Hannity or even that guy from Duck Dynasty, but Karen.
You know Karen. She’s the face of a thousand internet memes, the middle-aged white woman with the Kate Gosselin haircut, I’d-like-to-speak-to-your-manager charm combined with the I-don’t-believe-your-science intellect of an anti-vaxxer. She is millions of American women who would call the cops on black children selling lemonade. And she has a new cause celebre: reopening America when she wants to, regardless of what medical professionals say.
Actually, make that two new causes: She also wants you to stop using the “slur” Karen, thankyouverymuch.
With entitled Karens appearing on the front lines of reopen protests, the internet has suddenly demanded to know: Is Karen a slur?
Extremes aside, the argument suggested that by simple definition, Karen had to be a slur: It referred to an identifiable group (generally upper-middle-class white women, at least old enough to have a few kids) in a derogatory way. (It’s no coincidence that Karen was the fourth most popular baby name in the 1960s. In 2017, it was 557th.) Under Merriam-Webster’s definition (“an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo”) or the Oxford English Dictionary’s (“a deliberate slight”), Karen looks like a slur.
But as with all language adventures, the dictionary must be the start of your quest, not the end of it. Those advocating the slur-ification of Karen aren’t just asking about definitions — they’re seeking victimhood status.
Sure, calling someone Karen (unless that’s their name) is disparaging; so is calling them an idiot. The important distinction, though, is about power.
Using the N-word as a slur is explosive because the user employs language to exert power over another. A host of political, social, and economic forces enable that power, which has been used against black Americans for 400 years. But the slur reinforces it. (Since I can already see my inbox filling with racist screeds about black people using the N-word, let me restate: The power imbalance is what creates the offensiveness. Put your pen down.)
Upper-middle-class white American women, on the other hand, are among the most privileged, comfortable demographics in the history of the planet. Despite the victimhood that Karens seek, an epithet that lacks the power to discriminate is just an insult.
Even politically neutral dictionaries acknowledge the difference in fascinating, if subtle, ways. In a 2003 article, Wharton’s Anita Henderson compared how dictionaries describe slurs against white people vs. slurs against black people. With some exceptions, anti-black slurs are generally identified as “offensive” in most dictionaries, while anti-white slurs are simply described as “slang.”
There’s an appealing reason for Karens to cry discrimination: If it works, it engenders sympathy and confers additional power without having to sacrifice any power in the first place. (See also: the War on Christmas, a concept that noted anti-Semite Henry Ford pioneered almost a century before Bill O’Reilly.) But an ardent desire for victimhood doesn’t change the nature of slurs. Until Karens relinquish their power and privilege, they are not being and cannot be discriminated against.
This might make them sad. I’m sorry. But as they know better than anyone, I, too, have a manager, and I have no doubt she is waiting for their call.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and linguistic reclamation to firstname.lastname@example.org.