Who is Karen?

As Gretchen McCulloch explains, language changes more rapidly today than in the past, because internet. One current meaning of Karen is new. According to Wikipedia:

Karen is a term used in the United States for a person perceived to be entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is considered appropriate or necessary. A common stereotype is that of a racist white woman who uses her privilege to get her own way at the expense of others. Depictions also include demanding to “speak to the manager”, being an anti-vaxxer, or having a particular bob cut hairstyle. As of 2020, the pejorative has increasingly been used as a general-purpose term of disapproval for middle-aged upper-middle-class white women.

Interesting… but let’s try a more reliable source than Wikipedia. There are a great many sources quoted in that Wikipedia article — so many that it’s hard to know which ones are reliable. Hmmm… I suppose we could google “Karen” and then use our own judgment and experience to pick a source.

The first hit says this:


  1. a member of an indigenous people of eastern Burma (Myanmar) and western Thailand.
  2. the language of the Karen, probably Sino-Tibetan.
  1. relating to the Karen or their language.

Interesting and informative — but completely irrelevant to the meaning we want for this polysemous word.

Then we get links to the aforementioned Wikipedia article, then to CNN, then to urban dictionary, then to insider.com… — not looking hopeful here, at least for a serious linguist. Then we get to some better sources: The Guardian, The Atlantic… starting to look better, but not really good enough yet…, knowyourmeme.com (gack), the New York Post (😧), CBS News (maybe OK…), dictionary.com (surprisingly reliable, actually), Newsweek….

I’m going to stop there. Not a linguist among them. So is the new use of Karen racist? Is it sexist? I really don’t know. We’re just going to have to settle for that Wikipedia article, enhanced by checking some of the many links within it.




Categories: Life, Linguistics