Will Anyone Ever Name Their Child Karen Again? A Baby Name Expert Weighs In

There were more than 30,000 babies a year named Karen around the time this woman might have been born; recently, only 500. Tomorrow...zero? Photo Illustration by Newsweek; Baby: Siri Stafford/Getty; Hair: Michael Kovac/FilmMagic/Getty

There are 1,107,736 people named Karen in the United States right now, and there are probably never going to be 1,107,737.

The reason: Karen has now joined that battery of names so closely identified with negative traits or reprehensible individuals that they're taken off the table as baby names by well-meaning parents everywhere.

As far off the table as Adolf?

Unlike Adolf, the name Karen is not associated with a heinous person who masterminded the murder of 11 million people and started an international war.

Nor is Karen a pointed ethnic slur, the way many other names that have become epithets often are. Guido is a contemporary example, now a derogatory term meaning a macho, thuggish person of Italian descent, sparked by the movie Risky Business in 1983.

There were no babies named Guido (or Adolf) in the U.S. in 2018, the most recent year counted. But the year before innocuous Guido became tainted Guido, 17 baby boys were given the name, the same number as were named Susan (yes, really), Parnell and Dick.

Gender politics aside, the trouble with a boy named Sue, as Johnny Cash once famously sang about, is a lot more obvious than the problem with Parnell. But Parnell, along with its female form Petronilla, was basically the Karen of the 14th century, a once-popular name that came to mean a priest's concubine or person of loose morals. The association may have faded, but the name never really recovered.

Dick is another issue. At the peak of its popularity in 1938, when it was given to nearly 1,000 baby boys, dick was already a slang term for penis. It wasn't until the late 1960s, though, that Dick began taking on other negative meanings, as a noun, a verb and an adjective.

The upshot: zero baby boys named Dick today.

Some names outlast the taint of their derogatory associations. Few people remember, for instance, that there was ever anti-Irish prejudice in the U.S., much less that it was expressed by calling young Irish maids who immigrated to the U.S. "the Bridgets." The term was so negative, shorthand for ignorant and stupid, that many actual Bridgets changed their name to avoid being stigmatized.

My grandmother was one of them. In 1911 she renamed herself Bertha, which then became infamous itself when the heavy artillery used by Germany in the first World War was nicknamed Big Bertha. And so then she changed her name again, this time to Beatrice.

Many Karens trying to make a name for themselves in this already-difficult world may have the same idea. The more than 2,000 Karens turning 21 this year may decide to morph into Karas or Kerrys or Olivias. And the nearly 500 parents who named their baby girls Karen in 2018 may be suffering the world's biggest case of baby name regret.

But most Karens—the 32,000-plus who were given the name in the U.S. at its peak in 1965, for instance—may feel it's too late to restyle themselves as Olivias. They may also fear they'll be seen as Karens even if their name is Lisa or Donna or, okay, Pamela.

The problem with Karen as a name is rooted in its very ubiquity. The fact that none of the individuals who gave Karen her bad name were actually named Karen is the source of the name's power as a pejorative. Karen symbolizes the kind of white privilege that's been around so long and is so universal that it passes as ordinary and acceptable, like the name Karen itself.

But Karen has been fading from fashion as a name since it hit the height of its popularity 55 years ago, a year after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. And its current derogatory meaning stems, in part, from it being a relic of that bygone era. It's a name that stands for an outdated brand of normalcy, behavior that was once as unremarkable as segregated schools or blackface comedy but that now is totally unacceptable.

So is Karen the name as unacceptable as the behavior it signifies?

The short answer is yes. Even before it became a synonym for racist shrew, Karen was heading straight downhill as a baby name. And it's destined to fall much further much faster until, like Adolf, like Guido, like Genghis, there are no babies named Karen at all.

Still, you have to do something a lot worse than any Karen to be crossed off the master list of names forever. Lilith, Azrael and Cain—names associated with evil of literally Biblical proportions—are all coming back as stylish baby names. Figures of death and destruction—Kali, Electra, Osiris, Pandora, even Hades—are now fashionable names for innocent babies.

That's proof that a millennium or two can wash away even the darkest name associations. As the British parents who recently won a legal battle to name their son Lucifer maintained, they saw it not as an alias of Satan but simply as a unique name with a pleasing sound.

Said little Lucifer's dad, "We just thought it was a nice name."

Pamela Redmond is the co-creator of Nameberry, the world's largest baby name website, and the author of the novel Older, the sequel to TV's Younger, due out in September.