Words as labels
The first principle of semantics is that the word is not the thing.
Words are labels for things that exist in the physical world or in our thoughts.
The word air is not identical with the substance that we breathe.
The word kindness is not the quality we wish more people would demonstrate on Facebook.
And the name Karen is not our lovely sister-in-law who volunteers at the local food pantry.
Words have multiple meanings
A proof that words are simply labels or markers and not things is the fact that the same word can be used to label very different things.
Not every mouse eats cheese. Some move cursors across monitor screens.
The bat used to hit a ball is not the bat that flies at night.
The second that measures time is not the second who provides support for a duelist.
A clip can fasten sheets of paper together, or a clip can contain bullets.
Words like these stir no emotions, but attaching figurative or generic meanings to personal names can result in hurt feelings.
Allusive personal names
Personal names used to represent specific human qualities or failings are nothing new.
In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio urges Portia to use her power as a judge to deny Shylock his legal rights, “to do a great right, do a little wrong.” Portia refuses to establish a precedent that could lead to future injustices. Delighted, Shylock exclaims, “A Daniel! A Daniel come to judgment!”
The Hebrew meaning of the name Daniel is, “God is my judge.” In the biblical book named for Daniel, he interprets dreams. Used generically, the name Daniel represents a person of great wisdom.
Here are some other names used allusively to denote behavior or characteristics:
A “Jeremiah” is a person given to lamentation or woeful complaining. Jeremiah was a Hebrew prophet. The biblical book with his name on it is filled with bad news for the Jews. Another word coined from his name is jeremiad, “a complaining tirade.”
A “Jonah” is someone who brings bad luck to others. Because the biblical Jonah was thrown overboard to rid the ship of his unlucky influence, a “Jonah” can also be someone who is sacrificed to save others.
The apostle Judas identified Jesus to arresting officers in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. A “Judas,” therefore, is someone who betrays a friend for money. Two other names associated with betrayal are Brutus (the historical Brutus assisted in the assassination of his best friend) and Benedict Arnold (the historical person abandoned the American revolutionary cause to side with the British).
A “Uriah Heep” is someone who is hypocritically humble, like the smarmy character in David Copperfield by Dickens.
A “Pollyanna” is a person able to find cause for happiness in the most disastrous situations. The fictional character created by Eleanor Hodgman Porter once received a crutch when she was hoping for a birthday present. Instead of giving into disappointment, she comforted herself with the fact that she didn’t need the crutch.
More recent name-calling
Because few living people share the names of these established stereotypes, they are used without hurting anyone’s feelings. A recent coinage, however, is being met with pained outcries from women whose name has been appropriated: Karen.
NOTE: According to census figures, only about 1,676 women in the US are named Pollyanna, but we have more than a million Karens.
The internet is rife with explanations and speculations of how and when the Karen meme originated. It seems to have begun as shorthand for a privileged, middle-aged white woman who demands to speak to the manager regarding small inconveniences. Then the meaning expanded to include a racist element. Here’s how the Urban Dictionary defines this slang term:
an obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white woman who uses her privilege to get her way or police other people’s behaviors.
Like similar pejoratives in the ongoing culture wars—terms like woke, critical race theory, and cancel culture—the Karen slur has quickly morphed into a term meaning whatever an individual speaker wants it to mean.
Consider, for example, the following online meme:
I hate when cashiers feel the need to check if my money is real. If I could counterfeit money I wouldn’t be at Dollar Tree [,] Karen.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I fail to see how this comment has anything to do with a white woman asserting imaginary rights over a person of color. Aren’t cashiers of every ethnicity and gender expected to keep an eye out for counterfeit bills? This example could be seen as support for Philadelphia community organizer Gwen Snyder’s suggestion that Karen has been turned into “white-boy” code for “bitch.”
In reporting on the St. Louis couple who stood outside with guns as Black Lives Matter protestors walked past their house, journalists called the woman a “Karen” but felt they needed to assign a masculine name to the man. They called him a “Ken.” For one thing, thanks to the Barbie franchise, Ken already has a generic meaning. For another, if the woman was behaving like a “Karen” and the man was behaving in the same way, then he’s a “Karen” too.
So is the Connecticut man who called 911 “over a group of Latino and Black men peacefully launching a boat at his marina.” (AP News 29 June 2020)
If Karen is going to be used to label a person who uses their whiteness as a weapon to enlist the aid of management or law enforcement to infringe on the rights of non-whites, then it needs to be viewed as genderless. Otherwise, it will quickly become just another misogynistic epithet.
Meanwhile, let all the wonderful women who are actually named Karen embrace their true loving and loveable natures, remembering that—
—the word is not the thing.
—the map is not the territory.
—the name is not the person.