After naming three boys for deceased relatives, my mother was ready to rebel. Finally, having gotten her wish for a daughter (me), she refused to be tradition-bound in selecting my name. So, instead of honoring my father’s brother, Mom went wild and picked “exotic,” “foreign” names of her choosing.
The result: I, Karen Michelle, joined the Galatz clan bearing not even a Hebrew name to remember Uncle Irving — nor any other deceased relative.
My mother thought the mix of Swedish and French names was unique and lively. She knew not one Karen. And no American Michelle. And thus, she reasoned, unlike my brothers Neil, Malcolm and Henry, I would not suffer multiple hands being raised in school when my name was called.
Little did she know that the name Karen would skyrocket in popularity in the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, in 1965, Karen was the third most popular name for baby girls in the U.S.
And little did little me know that the name Karen would crater in popularity in 2020, becoming a meme — a pejorative meme — for privileged, middle-age women who are racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers.
In the way, way back “good old days,” the name Karen had lovely, positive meanings. Keren is Hebrew and means “ray of light.” Karen is also German and means “hard worker.” It is similar to the Sanskrit name “Kiran,” which means “sunbeam.”
Alas, today, members of Generation Z — those born in 1997 and later — manage to lambast a whole generation, of females in particular, by using that name to conjure such unsavory images.
My once oh-so-popular name is not only pilloried by Gen Zers but by lawmakers, too. A San Francisco elected official wants to “immortalize” it into law. He’s introduced the CAREN (Caution Against Racially Exploitive Non-Emergencies) Act to change the city’s code to punish people who call 911 and file racially biased complaints.
There’s even a play about my now-problematic appellation that breaks my theater-loving heart! Titled “Karen, I Said,” the story begins with a 38-year-old white woman — Karen, of course — calling the police on a man of color for delivering a meat lasagna instead of the vegetarian option she ordered. Written and performed by Eliza Bent, the piece was reviewed in the New York Times as a “wicked 45-minute satire on wokeness.” I’m just calling it (admittedly sight unseen) wicked!
I’m pretty thick-skinned, or so I thought. But these nonstop mean Karen memes hurt.
I’ll admit I’m considering asking people to call me by my middle name, Michelle. There are advantages to doing this. I genuinely adore the name. When the Beatles penned the song “Michelle,” I practically wore the album down, playing it nonstop on my record player. Also, several people already call me versions of my middle name. My husband says Mish. My brother does, too, or sometimes Michelle-o.
Thanks to my rebellious mother, I have no Hebrew name, so that fallback option is not available to me.
Thinking about that decades-old maternal rebellion makes me wonder if the Karen meme is my family’s fault. Is it some strange sort of Ashkenazi version of karma? Divine retribution for my mother’s refusal to name me after my Uncle Irving? Are Irving and his wife, Minnie, may they rest in peace, taking revenge for my mother’s failure to heed and honor tradition?
Looking back, how awful would it have been if I had been named Irene or Imelda or Isadora — or even, heaven forbid, Ivanka?
Still, hindsight is 20/20. All I can do is hope that the mean Karen meme quickly becomes passé.
Till then, I take small comfort in a silly saying my father liked: “You can call me anything. Just don’t call me late to the dinner table!”