Why Do Some Names Become Memes?
Karen and co have been circulating on internet forums and social media for years, but the past few tumultuous months have thrust name-based memes into the public sphere like never before. (And, in some cases, changed them beyond recognition.)
The fast-moving Karen meme has even found its way into legislation. Earlier this month, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced the CAREN Act, which will make fraudulent, racially biased emergency calls of the kind made by Amy Cooper (Central Park Karen) and Lisa Alexander (San Fran Karen) a criminal offense.
Why do names make such good memes?
“First names tend to contain a range of social cues,” explains Robin Queen, a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan, in The Conversation. “An obvious one is gender. But they can convey other kinds of information too, including age, ethnicity, religion, social class and geography.”
This makes names a natural vehicle for social commentary – and Karen is far from the first name meme. In a 1983 article published in the Journal of Onomastics, sociologist Irving Lewis Allen lists over 150 examples of ethnic epithets that are based on personal names. These range from Paddy (an Irishman) and Biddy (an Irish maid, later applied disparagingly to older women in general), to Mister Charlie and Miss Ann, terms used by Black Americans from as early as the 19th century to refer to white people, especially those in a position of authority.
Names are also just plain funny.
[schmoozing at fancy dinner]
me: im a private investigator
wife: you’re allowed to say gynaecologist, keith
me: people are eating, linda
— k e i t h ???????? (@KeetPotato) November 19, 2014
What factors help a name to catch on as a meme?
Let’s take a closer look at the most popular name memes of the moment, to see if they share any common qualities.
Length and sound
For a start, they’re all pretty short. The most popular female meme names almost all have five letters and two syllables – think Carol, Becky, Janet, Karen, Linda, Susan. For male names, one syllable reigns supreme – see Brad, Chad, Ken, Todd, Kyle.
Age and popularity
All of the popular meme names are, to a significant degree, generation-specific. Here’s meme queen Karen’s popularity trajectory since US naming records began in the late 19th century.
Peaking at #3 in 1965, Karen was a Top 10 pick throughout the 1950s and 60s, making it a solid Baby Boomer name (although the insult is just as often aimed at Gen X). By the time the first Gen Z babies were being born in the late 1990s, Karen had fallen out of the Top 150 girl names, and has continued on a steep downward trajectory since.
The power of certain names to date their bearers to a specific era is a key part of what makes them so meme-worthy. Karen is joined by Carol, Debra, Linda, Susan and Sharon as quintessential Baby Boomer names – generational everywomen which all ranked within the Top 10 at their peak, and all well outside the Top 500 now.
This ingenious Karen-ometer highlights other names that have followed a similar trajectory. Debra, Sandra, Sharon, Linda, Susan and Brenda all make the cut, as do David, Gary, Mark, Steven and Dennis for males. And Lisa, Kelly, Amber, Scott, Jason and Eric are among those identified as the potential “Karens of the future”.
The interesting thing about this tool is that it identifies the most popular female name memes far more accurately than the male ones.
This difference can partly be explained by the relative stability of boys’ name trends compared to girls’. According to SSA data, in 1957 (the year Karen made its debut in the girls’ Top 5, alongside Mary, Susan, Linda and Debra), the Top 5 boys’ names were Michael, James, David, Robert and John. They remained until 1972, when Christopher replaced Robert. Across the same time period, the girls’ Top 5 had completely changed: Jennifer, Michelle, Lisa, Kimberly and Amy now held the top spots. That makes popular female names generally far more emblematic of a particular period in time than male names.
But it’s also an indication of how differently the male name memes are used. Brad, Chad, Kyle and co are all very specific types: Chad the alpha-male college student, Kyle the aggressive, energy drink addicted teen.
The use of Karen, and other popular female name memes like Becky, is much more broad and fluid. Recent Karens include the infamous cases of racist cop callers Amy Cooper and Lisa Alexander, as well as a spate of mask-refusing shoppers, Ellen DeGeneres, JK Rowling, the White House Press Secretary, and a woman whose husband tweeted about her 18-minute wait for shredded cheese at a Texas restaurant. (Interestingly, the husband himself didn’t get a special moniker.)
And there is undoubtedly an ageist element to female name memes that target older women, thanks to the double standard of aging, which devalues older women more than older men and younger women.
Always a symbol of white privilege and entitlement, the Karen meme in particular has taken on a darker, more potent form in light of recent events. “While the meme’s meaning was still somewhat malleable during the first months of the pandemic, the national conversation around Black Lives Matter protests rapidly changed what many people meant by ‘Karen’,” writes Aja Romano for Vox.
Despite their often humorous manifestations, memes are more than just a bit of virtual fun. They’re based in contemporary reality and can sometimes be a form of activism in their own right – shining a light on bad behaviors and calling out systemic failings.
The fact that the most popular name memes of the moment feature generic “white people names” like Carol, Susan and Becky is no coincidence. It’s a reflection of the racial tensions which plague our society, and an inversion of the stigma long attached to so-called “ethnic” names in a predominantly white, Anglocentric society.
Echoes of the famous Key & Peele “Substitute Teacher” sketch
As Dr. André Brock, an associate professor of Black Digital Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told TIME: “Social media is a platform for communicating feelings and the stronger the feeling, the more viral things go.”
Pop culture also plays a part in why some names – even unlikely ones – catch on as memes, while others don’t.
Karen and Becky both have decades of pop culture associations to draw on. From Karen the unlikely middle-class mobster wife in Goodfellas (1990) to airheaded Karen from 2004’s Mean Girls (“Oh my god, Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white!”), Karen has a long-established association with white privilege and white cluelessness.
The origins of the stereotypical Becky have been traced all the way back to the 1847 novel Vanity Fair, but modern associations like gossipy Becky from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, 2014’s “no its becky” meme, and “Becky with the good hair” from Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade have cemented Becky’s “basic bitch” image.
Name-based memes as a tool for social commentary
There’s a complex interplay of factors and circumstances behind why certain name memes take off, while others have their brief moment in the sun then fade back into obscurity (Lakynn, anyone?) And it’s the ability of personal names to convey all of this rich subtext and context in just a few short letters which makes them so successful as memes.
The Karen meme in particular has proved itself a genuinely transformational tool for social commentary over the past few months, as the recent introduction of the CAREN Act demonstrates. By linking a whole range of discrete incidents to a single, instantly recognizable, viral label, the Karen phenomenon has put the systemic prejudice faced by the Black community on stark public display.
But at the same time, the very success of these memes reveals a lot about the society in which we live. That it takes these clickbaity – and, many have argued, trivializing – tropes to get wider society to see and care about issues that have affected the lives of minority groups forever is telling. As is the fact that Karen, Becky and co still have no established male equivalents, despite Karen-ish behavior being far from a female-only problem.
The danger with name-based memes especially is that the caricature can become a social scapegoat – a universal hate figure that people can rail against, rather than examining their own complicity.