Your name is an introduction and a greeting, a blessing and a wish. It also casts a shadow, a permanent marker that accompanies you from your certificate of birth to the chisel on your tombstone.
Although I have since changed it, my birth name is Karen. I believe my mother scraped the bottom of the barrel of monikers, and Karen stuck to me like toilet paper on the heel of a shoe. My siblings were all christened with ancestral or saints’ names, but there is no St. Karen. Some believe that the name Karen is derived from St. Catherine of Genoa, who is fondly referred to as “the Apostle of Purgatory.” There’s also an apocryphal St. Karen, patron saint of spinsters and washerwomen. I imagine her symbols are skid marks and hobo teeth.
Female names cycle in and out of fashion faster than their male counterparts, reflecting trends as well as race and class markers. At one point in the 60s, Karen was the third most popular name. Why? I don’t know—there weren’t any daredevils, miracle-working scientists, or feminist writers by that name. But, for some reason, it spread like a weed.
Today, those weeds have borne bitter fruit. “Karen” is slang for an irritating, antagonistic, privileged middle-aged woman who probably sports a lady mullet. She’s entitled, tacky, garish, possibly bigoted. She’s a font of abrasive behavior—a stock female villain who makes her children listen to Kidz Bop.
Mislabeled at Birth
Every name represents an idea—an image or a memory of those who share it. I’ve always felt disconnected from Karen. When I go to the coffee joint and they ask for my name, I tell them “Jack.” Your name should cast a light over you, but in my case it feels more like the cloud you draw in Pictionary when the answer is “monkey fart.”
There was no mentor in my life who shared the same two hard syllables with me, the graceless “Kar” rubbing against the hard “ren.” To my ears, the name is not music but the sound of two rusting tuna trawlers crashing into each other, at first quickly and with great force, and then with a long, slow grinding that tears both vessels into shipwrecks. The name you’re given is like a house you inhabit. I filled the houseboat SS Karen with dynamite and lit a match.
My rejection of my name was a part of my identity, even when I was very young. My best friend from primary school announced to our second-grade class that there are too many Karens, and that I should be called “Duff.” This one stuck. I was mislabeled at birth, but was luckily reborn.
“Duff” is most widely known as an acronym for Designated Ugly Fat Friend—the less attractive member of a clique whom the pretty girls keep around so that their beauty shines even brighter by comparison. “Duff” is also slang for one’s posterior. As a verb, to “duff” someone is to practice a deception or steal. Something “duff” is inferior, and “a duffer” is a peddler of counterfeit goods. In golf, a swing that is so misjudged and ineffective that the club hits the ground before the ball—that’s a “duff.” Duff is also the decomposing leaf litter on the forest floor. It’s the finger-staining dust left in the bottom of a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. A duff is a stiff suet pudding boiled in a bag.
Only some of these apply to me. I’ve never golfed, and never will. Posterior—well, I have one, and it is unremarkable. Did I turn out to be like the dust at the bottom of a Cheetos bag? You’ll have to judge that for yourself, but I like to think I am spicy and delicious. I find Duff to be euphonious, and I like it as a name, though when it comes to its significance, I may have exchanged the inferno of Karen for the tepid frying pan of Duff.
You define your name by the way you live your life. Whether I have done a service to the name Duff is, again, something you’ll have to sort out. When it comes to cultural impact, I think it’s a close race between me and the beer Homer Simpson guzzles.
Did I turn out to be like the dust at the bottom of a Cheetos bag? You’ll have to judge that for yourself, but I like to think I am spicy and delicious.
I’ve actively tried to be the opposite of everything the name Karen now stands for. I don’t demand to see the manager over petty slights. I try to be courteous and respectful of others. I am mindful of the privilege I have and do my best not to wield it, unless it’s to help someone who needs it. And I have never made my son listen to Kidz Bop.
There’s a belief that we view someone as lucky if their name sounds like “luck,” and has the same number of letters. Jack is considered the luckiest male name. (Lucy is perceived to be the luckiest female name. Karen must surely be the least lucky.) This belief is known as “associative magic.” It describes the linking of similar attributes with the hope that, by association, good things will result. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Jack is one of the most popular male names in the U.S.
As Luck Might Have It …
Whatever your name, you’re already the product of a staggering amount of good luck. The sperm cell that led to you outraced 249,999,999 others to the prize of the female oocyte. That’s a feat of swimming more impressive than Michael Phelps’s measly 28 medals. What would you have been if that little fella had been tired that day and another one came in first? Thank your lucky stars that didn’t happen. And what were the odds you would be born back when the universe began in the big bang?
Most people believe that miracles are rare, but I prefer Albert Einstein’s view that there are two ways to look at the world: Either nothing is a miracle, or everything is a miracle. According to Littlewood’s Law, one can expect to experience a one-in-a-million event every month. Miracles are all around us, so keep your eyes and your heart open.
You are a wonder. You are humanity’s greatest upgrade. You are 40 trillion cells thrumming with life force. There is an original, radiant, and unrepeatable brilliance within us all, and this is the raw material from which we shape our lives. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher whose maxims run on repeat in my heart, believed that if you make beautiful choices, you will make a beautiful life. I’ve chosen to do my best as Duff, but a Karen can do it, too.
Duff Lambros (née Karen Duffy) is the author of Backbone: Living with Chronic Pain Without Turning into One