Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

‘Scandalize My Name’

Karen Allen (Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
The use and abuse of ‘Karen,’ etc.

Last summer, I sat down to lunch with a young friend and his new girlfriend, Karen. We got on the subject of her name (first and last) — and I learned that “Karen” had become an epithet, a slur.

Boy, has it. It’s all over the social media, certainly Twitter, the social medium I’m most familiar with. People use “Karen” as commonly and casually as they might use “the” or “a.”

A “Karen,” in this understanding, is a white woman, probably middle-aged, who is arrogant, ignorant, and racist. She’s the type to demand to see the manager.

Incidentally, my friend Barbara J. Fields, the Columbia historian, refers to the social media as the “antisocial media.” (Come to think of it, she has a sister named “Karen,” a sociologist, with whom she has co-authored a book on race.)

A few days ago, Rex Chapman circulated a video, featuring a candidate for “2020 KOY.” That’s the way Chapman put it. By those initials, he meant “Karen of the Year.”

Do you know Chapman? He’s a former NBA player who is enjoying a remarkable career as a circulator of videos on Twitter — especially videos of the heartwarming variety. The video in question is not.

It’s horrible, and she is horrible: the woman who is bawling out another woman, in racist, hysterical fashion. (Sample: “Get the f*** out of this world! Get the f*** out of this state! Go back to whatever f***ing Asian country you belong in, you f***ing b*tch!”)

I’m sorry that the name “Karen” has been attached to such behavior. In fact, it burns me. I think of the girls and women named “Karen” I have known and loved. I’m talking about private life, but what about famous Karens, too? Karen Allen, the actress (ahhh). Karen Blixen, the writer. Karen Carpenter, the singer (one of the purest and best).

On Twitter, I deplored the appropriation of “Karen” as a slur, and the blowback was fierce. I was clueless, said my critics, coming from a “place of privilege.” I was racist. Several critics tried a lighter touch, saying, “Do you want to see the manager?”

And, as always, there was “Nerdlinger.”

I’m fairly safe with “Jay,” but my critics, of all political stripes and none, routinely deliver “Nerdlinger.” They do it as though no one had ever thought of it before.

In the Old World, the name was “Nördlinger.” In America, some families simplified it to “Nerdlinger.” I was not born into one of those families (and I don’t regret it). Some families, classily, go “Noerdlinger,” honoring the replacement of “ö” with “oe.”

The most prominent Noerdlinger, as far as I know, is Rachel Noerdlinger, who has long been active in New York City politics. For years, she was press spokesman for Al Sharpton. She and I call each other “Brother Jay” and “Sister Rachel.”

Few of us have any right to complain to a Dick. In times gone by, “dick” was slang for “detective” — as in The Bank Dick, the classic W. C. Fields movie (1940). But dicks aren’t for detectives anymore, really . . .

I was discussing this issue online the other day, and a reader told me about a classmate of his: Richard Head. Our reader included a screenshot of the relevant page in the school’s online alumni directory — just for confirmation.

The first vote I ever cast was for Richard “Dick” Headlee, in 1982. I was a freshman in college, and he was the GOP nominee for governor of Michigan. He did not win. (I have voted for many, many losing candidates over the years.) A more successful politician was Richard “Dick” Swett, Democrat of New Hampshire. He served two terms in the U.S. House, and was later ambassador to Denmark.

My friend whose girlfriend is Karen (though not “a Karen”)? I was talking to him just last night. I told him about the piece I was planning to write. And he had, not one, but two nuggets.

He once worked for a man named “Griesedieck.” In the Old World, the name would be pronounced “Gree’-zeh-deek.” But this American goes with “Greasy” you-know-what. Also, my friend had a classmate named “Glasscock.” This fellow had a nickname, too, and an inspired one: “Crystal Pistol.”

Fifteen years ago, a young man came to work for us at National Review. Now a big-time lawyer in D.C., he is Anthony J. Dick. Back when he was a pup, I suggested that he write a piece on what it was like to bear the last name “Dick.” Surely he must have interesting stories to tell, or insights to share. “To be honest,” he said, “it hasn’t been much of an issue.”

Anthony has such a beautiful temperament, it’s hard to imagine that he would be bothered by anything, or that anyone would bother him.

My hometown team, the University of Michigan, had a player named “Jake Butt.” Football, I’m talking. On top of that, his position was tight end. Butt is now in the NFL. Back in college days, he wore the number 88, and his Twitter handle was “@JBooty_88.”

It’s probably easier to wear tough names with grace — even swagger — when you’re a star athlete.

“John” is so common, so standard, a name, it’s hard to dent it, or stigmatize it. Yet a “john” is a client of a prostitute. It’s also a toilet or bathroom.

For some 35 years — even before he became host of the Tonight show — Johnny Carson was introduced with the phrase “Heeeere’s Johnny!” In the mid 1970s, he sued an entrepreneur, Earl J. Braxton, who was calling his portable-toilet company “Here’s Johnny!” It was a famous case, around the nation, and Carson won. Braxton had to call his company something else.

After Carson died in 2005, Braxton — persistent, and not over the case — tried again. Still no dice. A posthumous victory for Johnny (the man).

“Bye, Felisha.” Do you know that one? This is one of those Internet memes, and catchphrases. It springs from a 1995 movie, Friday, in which a character gets a cold dismissal: “Bye, Felisha.” Today, Felishas, and Felicias, have to put up with being said “Bye” to, a lot.

Three years after Friday came the Lewinsky scandal. I pitied other Monicas, and wondered when the name “Monica” would be free of this association. Is it now? Quite possibly, more than 20 years hence. But I wonder how many new parents risk it.

“Jemima” will never be free of its association, I’m afraid (though “never” is a long time). The only Jemima in America, as far as I know, is Aunt Jemima, the (racially) problematic symbol of a pancake brand.

In Britain, they may not know about Aunt Jemima. Jemima Goldsmith is a TV and film producer, the daughter of Sir James Goldsmith, the late financier, and the ex-wife of Imran Khan, the onetime cricket star who is now prime minister of Pakistan.

It’s a pity to lose “Jemima” to stigmatization. It’s a beautiful-sounding name, meaning “dove” in Hebrew. In the Bible, the long-suffering Job is rewarded with a new family: seven sons and three daughters, as he had before. The first of the new daughters is called “Jemima.” “And in all the land were no women found so fair . . .”

Spare a thought for black men named “Tom,” especially if they are right-leaning. “Uncle Tom” is one of the nastiest names in the whole American lexicon — never mind that the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel (1852) is noble.

Allow me to drift back to March 1975, when I’m eleven. I’m watching The Jeffersons, as millions of us did, weekly. Louise’s uncle Ward has come to visit, and George is giving him a terrible time. Ward works as a butler, and George calls him “Uncle Tom,” to his face.

In the climactic moment, Ward sits George down and gives him a lecture on Josiah Henson, the historical figure who is thought to have inspired Stowe’s Uncle Tom. “He was a brave man, a great leader,” says Ward. “And I’ll tell you something else, George: I’d never call you an ‘Uncle Tom.’”

The studio audience whoops.

Allow me some more drifting back, this time only to 2000 or so. The venue is Carnegie Hall, and intermission has ended. The lights have dimmed. There’s a man in the aisle, unable to find his seat. A woman calls out, “Adolph?”

I think, “I wonder if it’s Adolph Green [the lyricist], being called by Phyllis Newman [the actress and singer, and his wife].” Do you know it was? How many Adolphs, or Adolfs, could there have been at that point? How many could there be now?

Adolph Green died in 2002, having been born in 1914. Adolph Rupp, the great basketball coach, died in 1977, having been born in ’01.

When I wrote about that Carnegie Hall experience online, years ago, a reader sent me a note, recalling a late member of his synagogue, a Holocaust survivor. The man’s entire family had been murdered: parents, siblings, wife, children. In America, he had a “second family” (like Job, actually).

His name was “Adolf.” And one day, our reader asked him, “Did you ever think about changing your name?” The older man said, “My mother gave me that name and it’s all I have left from her. It was my name before that monster seized it. He took everything else from me and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him take my name too!”

I have drifted a long way off from “Karen,” I suppose, but let me reiterate my point, before I go: To take someone’s name and make it a pejorative is a lousy thing to do. To place a stigma on it is lousy. Twitterati and other culture warriors ought to think twice before they scandalize a name.

Do you know that spiritual? “I met my brother the other day. I gave him my right hand. And just as soon as ever my back was turned, he scandalize my name. Now you call that a brother? No, no. You call that a brother? No, no. You call that a brother? No, no. Scandalize my name.”

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

LEARN MORE

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Most Popular

Culture

The Fragility of the Woke

A TikTok video that recently went viral on social media showed a recent Harvard graduate threatening to stab anyone who said “all lives matter.” In her melodrama, she tried to sound intimidating with her histrionics. She won a huge audience, as she intended. But her video also came to the attention of the ... Read More
Culture

The Fragility of the Woke

A TikTok video that recently went viral on social media showed a recent Harvard graduate threatening to stab anyone who said “all lives matter.” In her melodrama, she tried to sound intimidating with her histrionics. She won a huge audience, as she intended. But her video also came to the attention of the ... Read More
Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More
Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More
Elections

The Winds of Woke

Before Thursday morning I had not heard of Thomas Bosco, and I am willing to bet you haven’t heard of him either. He runs a café in Upper Manhattan. From the picture in the New York Times, the Indian Road Café is one of those Bobo-friendly brick-lined coffee shops with chalkboard menus affixed to the wall ... Read More
Elections

The Winds of Woke

Before Thursday morning I had not heard of Thomas Bosco, and I am willing to bet you haven’t heard of him either. He runs a café in Upper Manhattan. From the picture in the New York Times, the Indian Road Café is one of those Bobo-friendly brick-lined coffee shops with chalkboard menus affixed to the wall ... Read More