The first line in every form you’ll ever fill out asks for your name. Most babies respond to their name by about six months of age. Throughout our lives, the sound of our name attracts our immediate attention. It is our primary identifier throughout our lives. So I decided to write about my name today.
The name “Karen” has been going through a bit of a rough patch over the past few years. It’s associated with entitled older white women who threaten to call the manager. It is used routinely and pejoratively in social media and in casual conversation. I was called out this morning for a comment I made on Facebook. Someone said “Okay Karen hahahahaha.” As you can imagine, this gets old. But if you comment on it you get called a “Karen” so there ya go.
The origin of the Karen meme is hard to pin down, and I’m not going to note the various theories. Suffice it to say they’re all stupid.
Anyway, today’s prompt made me wonder why my parents named me Karen. I don’t have any family members with that name. Although the name was almost unheard of before 1930, it rose in popularity over the next decades. When I was born in 1947, it was the 13th most popular girl’s name in the US, and it rose to the rank of #3 in 1965 before its popularity began to decline. But it was a popular name in the 1940s through the 1970s – in 1965 it was the third most popular name for baby girls born in the US. By 2020, it was ranked at #661.
I decided to search my family tree to see if I had anyone named Karen. I didn’t think I would find anyone. I was surprised by what I found.
First a note about how to search your tree. You can download your tree from Ancestry, convert it to an Excel spreadsheet with a program (I use Family Tree Analyzer but there are others) and then do a word search. Easy-peasy.
My records note that my 5th great-grandaunt was (improbably) named Karenhappock Simpson. I had not done much research on her – I was more interested in her brother Charles, my 5th great-grandfather. I had kind of written off her supposed name as a transcription error somewhere along the line. But I decided to google “Karenhappock” anyway to see if it had any meaning. Well, bo and leehold, it is an actual name.
Wikipedia identifies Keren-happuch as the youngest of the three beautiful daughters of Job. Her two older sisters were Jemima and Keziah. It is notable, according to Biblical scholars, that Keren-happuch and her sisters (rather than their brothers) inherited their father’s estate. She is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible.
Being of an inquiring sort of mind, I wondered why her parents had given her such an unusual name. The family was active in the Truro parish church in Prince William County, Virginia; Keren-happuch’s grandfather, Richard Simpson, was a member of the Vestry there and was appointed a processioner for the parish in 1742. A processioner was charged with periodically surveying the patented lands within the parish. This position does not connote that the individual is necessarily of a religious bent – Truro Parish was part of the Church of England (the established church in colonial Virginia at the time) and members of the Vestry were often chosen because they were politically significant figures in the community.
Whatever the reason, they named their daughter Keren-happuch. She was her parent’s 16th child, so far as I can tell, and it may be that they had simply run out of names. She married a man named Francis Keene, and when they had a daughter, they also named her Keren-happuch. This Keren-happuch did not pass this name on to her children.
In continuing to poke around, I found a whole lot of women given this name – in Maine and South Carolina as well as in England and New Zealand. The Wikitree profile for Keren-Happuch Smiley (1847-1894) says that her nickname was “Happy.” I like that – I think it fits with her surname as well. Can you imagine being called “Happy Smiley?” I think I’ll start going by “Happy.”