Studies in Natural Language Processing Series

Volumes in the Studies in Natural Language Processing series provide comprehensive surveys of current research topics and applications in the field of natural language processing (NLP) that shed light on language technology, language cognition, language and society, and linguistics. The increased availability of language corpora and digital media, as well as advances in computer technology and data sciences, has led to important new findings in the field. Widespread applications include voice-activated interfaces, translation, search engine optimization, and affective computing. NLP also has applications in areas such as knowledge engineering, language learning, digital humanities, corpus linguistics, and textual analysis. These volumes will be of interest to researchers and graduate students working in NLP and other fields related to the processing of language and knowledge.


General Editor: Chu-Ren Huang, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Editorial Board: Qi Su, Peking University; Francis Bond, Nanyang Technological University; Alessandro Lenci, Università degli Studi, Pisa; Lori Levin, Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania; Maarten de Rijke, Universiteit van Amsterdam; Nianwen Xue, Brandeis University, Massachusetts


Coming Soon:

Creating a More Transparent Internet edited by Piek Vossen & Antske Fokkens- March 2022

Computational Analysis of Storylines edited by Tommaso Caselli, Eduard Hovy, Martha Palmer, & Piek Vossen- January 2022


New in 2021:

Similar Languages, Varieties, and Dialects edited by Marcos Zampier & Preslav Nakov

“Life as a Bilingual” – a highly successful blog and now a new Cambridge book

Back in 2016, Cambridge Extra published an interview [1] of François Grosjean [2], a recognized expert on bilingualism, who talked about his Psychology Today blog, “Life as a Bilingual”[3] which he had started back in 2010. He discussed a number of topics such as why it is important to have scientific blogs for the general public, the difficulties of writing posts so as to make them appealing without losing any scientific value, what makes a post successful, and so on. He has kindly accepted to answer our questions five years later, both on the current status of his blog and on the book that followed it.

Can you remind us why it is that you started a blog?

I did so for a number of reasons. First, I have always wanted to put to rest the many myths that surround bilingualism, as well as tell the general public about findings in my research field. Since about half of the world is bilingual, that is, uses two or more languages or dialects in everyday life, and studies on bilinguals have been far less numerous than those on monolinguals, I feel that we researchers have the added duty of communicating our results on bilinguals to all those who might be interested in them.

You also had bilinguals themselves in mind when you started, didn’t you?

Yes, I wanted to reassure bilinguals about their own bilingualism and to give those involved with children – parents and other caretakers, educators, speech/language pathologists, and so on – some basic knowledge about growing up with two or more languages. Hopefully, a blog can help the latter understand why and how bilingual children behave the way they do, such as develop a dominant language, show a person–language bond, refuse to speak a particular language at some point, mix their languages in certain situations, and so on.

What is the status of the blog today?

Much to my astonishment, my blog has been visited by more than 2.3 million readers since its beginning. It contains some 150 posts, both short texts and interviews, that can be consulted by anyone throughout the world. In 2014, Aneta Pavlenko kindly joined me as a co-blogger and for the following five years, we took turns writing posts for the blog. She authored wonderful texts in her areas of specialty and greatly diversified our offerings. She left the blog in 2019 but her posts are still there.

At the beginning of this year, I wrote my last post [4], in which I thanked all those who had made the blog possible. Although I was saying goodbye, I left my readers with some good news. First, the blog remains available to anyone who wants to browse through it and read its posts, either on the Psychology Today website [5] or on my own website where I have organized the posts by content area [6]. Second, Elizabeth Lanza, from the University of Oslo, has just launched her own blog on Psychology Today, “Living with Languages” [7]. And third, there is now a book based on the blog.

Indeed, in 2020 you approached Cambridge University Press to see if they would accept to publish a book with a selection of posts. Can you explain your reasons for this?

Blogs have many advantages but also some inconveniences: They can be removed by the owner of the platform at any time; the posts are organized from latest to earliest, which makes selecting a topic and finding follow-up posts very difficult; and categories of posts are not easily identifiable. In addition, an electronic medium often lacks some of the advantages of books such as ease of manipulation, durability, and transportability.

When I approached Cambridge University Press, they showed very real interest – confirmed by five outside reviewers they consulted – and for this I am grateful. I worked on the book in 2020 and Life as a Bilingual [8] came out in the late spring of this year.

Can you tell us how the book is organized?

I chose 121 posts – including twenty-three interviews and thirteen posts by Aneta Pavlenko – which I organized by topic, in fifteen different chapters. The first four set the stage: describing bilinguals, the extent of bilingualism, using two or more languages, and bilingualism across the life span. These are followed by chapters on becoming bilingual, bilingualism in the family, bilingualism in children with additional needs, and second language learning. Next comes a chapter on biculturalism and personality. It is followed by a special chapter, “When the heart speaks,” with posts that concern emotions in bilinguals and how they express and process them in their languages.

The next three chapters concern language processing in bilinguals, the bilingual mind including the lively debate on whether bilinguals are advantaged cognitively, and the bilingual brain, its study, and what happens when it is impaired. This is followed by a chapter on special bilinguals such as translators, interpreters, teachers, and bilingual writers who have both a regular and a unique relationship with their languages.

What did you have to do to go from a blog format to a book format?

To help readers choose the texts they wish to peruse, each chapter starts with an introduction that presents the posts that it contains. Then, each post is preceded by a short abstract. Finally, there is a fair amount of cross referencing within posts to other posts and other chapters.

Does the bilingual that you are appear in the book?

Yes, in the last chapter, I reminisce on a few events that I lived through during my career studying bilinguals and bilingualism. I report on my interview with one of the greatest minds of our time, Noam Chomsky; I celebrate my fifty years in the field of bilingualism in an interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko; and I relate my travails in preparing and writing my French book on bilingualism, Parler plusieurs langues: le monde des bilingues [9].

Life as a Bilingual contains others posts written from a personal perspective, but since they fit in well with different topics, they can be found in respective chapters. In them I relate how I changed language dominance several times during my life, how my boys spent their first years as monolinguals before becoming bilingual, the support I received from an exceptional bilingual and bicultural couple when I was a young faculty, how I maintain contact with the four cultures that have influenced me, and so on. I also present the letter I wrote to my newborn grandchild who was born to be bilingual.

I dedicate this new book to my two grandchildren, Ismaël and Mia, both bilingual, and to all those other children of their generation who also live with two or more languages.

François Grosjean is Professor Emeritus at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. He was a cofounding editor of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition and is now working on a new book for Cambridge University Press
















Verbal hugs don’t lie

Written by Martina Wiltschko (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona)

When we talk to each other, we interact in ways that go beyond telling each other about ourselves and the world around us. We let our interlocutors know what we think and how we feel; we can share our attitudes towards each other and the things we talk about. We do this by using language dedicated to interaction and which does not contribute to the content of what we say. The mood of a conversation changes dramatically when the language of content (you made it) is enriched with interactional language (oh wow), bold-face in (1-2).

(1) Ann: Oh wow, you made it, eh?

Beth: I know, right?

(2) Charlie: Damn. I’m sick.

Dorian: Oh no! Get better, okay?

Without interactional language the conversation sounds almost curt or even rude. It’s like you don’t really care. In spoken language, this may be alleviated by other means such as intonation, gestures, and facial expressions and in texting via emojis. But in the absence of such clues, when Beth responds to Ann’s observation that she made it with a simple I know it takes away the congratulatory attitude of the preceding utterance. Beth may almost come across as complaining that Ann said something she already knows, so why bother? And there is no indication as to whether Beth is in fact excited about the fact that she made it. Similarly, in the second example, if Dorian responds with a simple get better, there is a sense in which he might as well say: So what? All you have to do is get better. No empathy. No connection.

By adding interactional language, the interlocutors learn something about how the other feels: oh wow conveys Ann’s surprise and excitement, oh no conveys Dorian’s concern for Charlie. By adding the sentence-final particles eh, right, and okay, the interlocutors build a connection: they indicate that they care what the other thinks and feels rather than simply telling them what to think and do or how to feel. They indicate that the speaker wants a response. Thus, interactional language has two interrelated function: it helps us to synchronize our minds in that it allows interlocutors to get a glimpse of what is going on in their interlocutor’s mind. And it helps us to facilitate the flow of the interaction. Being encouraged to respond makes it easier to keep the conversation going and thus to further connect with the interlocutor. The connection we are able to establish via interactional language may even be an emotional substitute for a physical hug. (In the situations in (1-2), hugs would be appropriate.)  Especially when physical hugging is not a possibility.

Some self-help websites have lately advocated for giving “verbal hugs”. You find statements like “a verbal hug is a sincere acknowledgment, said to make the person feel warm, loved, and honored. For example, instead of greeting someone with the trite “How are you?” try “It’s so good to see you,” or, if it’s true, “You’re looking great.”

Now the thing about the language of content is that it can be used to lie (hence the above cited post emphasizes to say it only if it is true). But interactional language is not about truth or falsehood: one cannot lie by saying oh wow. One could, of course fake it, but that would be like faking a smile or… a hug. While humans do not seem to be inherently equipped with lie-detection abilities, they are very good at detecting fake smiles and fake hugs. And, I would add, that we are also good at detecting fake verbal hugs that are delivered via interactional language. It’s much harder to fake interactional language than it is to lie with the language of content because the rules that regulate its use are much more difficult to make conscious. (Just ask someone what “eh?” means). And hence interactional language, arguably, allows for an unobstructed window into your interlocutor’s mind and their emotions.

Cover image: Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

The Grammar of Interactional Language by Martina Wiltschko is out now.




An Historical Linguistics Detective Story. This is well confusing!

Written by James Stratton, author of A Diachronic Analysis of the Adjective Intensifier well from Early Modern English to Present Day English in the Canadian Journal of Linguistics.

If you want to convince someone that the book you just read is worth reading, you can intensify your speech. Intensifiers are linguistic devices which allow speakers to impress, praise, persuade, and generally influence a listener’s understanding of a message. A sentence like “the book was so interesting” is clearly more convincing than just “the book was interesting”. However, specific intensifiers can go stale over time if they are overused, which means that different intensifiers are favored at different points in time.

In Present Day English, the three most frequently used intensifiers are so, really, and very, but this was not always the case. In Old English, the number one choice was swiðe (wæs swiðe bliþe ‘was very happy’), which survives today only in derivative forms, such as swift and swiftly. In Middle English, wel (a wel old cherl ‘a very old man’) became one of the most frequent variants, but by the mid-14th century, its use was thought to have declined in frequency, giving way to competitors such as right and very. By the 15th and 16th century, wel was thought to have disappeared, remaining only in fossilized expressions such as well worth and well aware. Interestingly, however, 500 years after its alleged demise, well returned as an intensifier in late 20th and 21st century British English. Today, you might hear Brits refer to that convincing book they read as well interesting or well good.

The question from a historical standpoint though is, did well really disappear after the 15th and 16th century? In a study published in the Canadian Journal of Linguistics, I traced the intensifying use of well over a 500-year period and found that although it was rarely attested in corpora (collections of digitized machine-readable texts) which document the incipient standard varieties of English, its use was retained in certain dialects of English. In a text from 1631, you can find “it appeareth to be well hard” and “A’d get well drunk” is attested in a text from 1843. When linguists started documenting the current intensifying use of well in the late 20th and early 21st century, it was initially proposed that it was British teenagers who innovated (i.e., invented) its use. However, in this study, I found that not only was its use retained in some dialects of English, but its use can also be found in songs and comedy sketches (by adults!) in the 1980s! In the Sitcom Hale and Pace, middle-aged men were found using well in a mocking fashion. But who were they mocking? Clearly if it was used by adults in the 1980s, its use was not innovated by teenagers from London in the 1990s, which is what was initially suggested.

So how did the current use come about? Is it a continuation of its retained use in dialects? Yes and no. While its retention in dialects allowed the intensifier to remain in the system, typically linguistic change does not spread from peripheral rural varieties to urban mainstream varieties, casting some doubt on this initial hypothesis. Moreover, I also discuss an interesting piece of prosodic evidence which might suggest that the current use is not the same as its retained use. Today, unbeknown to the consciousness of speakers of British English, whenever they use well as an intensifier, it is stressed. If you listen to how speakers use it, they always stress well, not the intensified part of speech (e.g., it was wéll boring! he’s wéll stupid!). In fact, if well is not stressed, it can have a different function (he’s wéll educated ‘he’s very educated’ VS he’s well éducated ‘he is educated well’). If the current intensifying use of well were the same as the former use documented in Old and Middle English, then we would not expect there to be a difference in stress between he’s well áware (where aware is stressed) and he’s wéll clever (where well is stressed, not clever).

This historical study showed that intensifiers can come in and out of vogue over time, but its use may differ across different populations. Methodologically, the study demonstrated the importance of the “leave no stone unturned” principle when carrying out a historical analysis. Had the analysis been restricted to the available digitized texts, one might have concluded that its intensifying use did die out after Middle English, but when all evidence is used, it becomes clear that it did not. The same principle applies in legal settings. For instance, overwhelming evidence such as a defendant’s blood, hair, and saliva can be found at the scene of a crime, but it only takes one piece of sufficiently acceptable evidence to refute the hypothesis that they were responsible for the murder. Take for example a video of the murder at the crime scene showing a different perpetrator manually planting the evidence after killing the victim themselves. This evidence invalidates the previous hypothesis while providing support for a different outcome.

Historical Linguistics can be thought of as a crime scene where researchers displaced in time are left with the befuddling task of reconstructing what happened based on limited footprints of data.

James Stratton
Purdue University
Department of Linguistics
School of Languages and Cultures
Email: [email protected]

Linguistic Reflections of a coronaspeak year

Well, what a year this has been! A year like no other. Where life and even the way we interact changed.

It is inevitable then that many of our authors blogged about the virus, its impact on not only us, but also our language. As Michael Toolan reflects ‘…as with every new phenomenon with the potential to turn our world upside down, our first response, immediate and intimate but with potential to go global, is in our language.’

Words such as lockdown, quarantine (Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year 2020) and ‘the rona’ have all made their way into every day vocabulary.

As David Crystal reflected, ‘the majority of the neologisms are blends – the combination of parts of two old words to make a new one. Many begin with Cov (covidiot, covideo, covidivorce) or corona (coronanoia, coronaspiracy, coronacation, and, for your self-made haircut, coronacut).’

Let’s hope there’s no record of our coronacuts!

Our language has changed throughout the course of this pandemic. As Betsy Rhymes notes language has ‘gone from the whimsical sharing of quarantinis and quaran-baking to the more ominous spectre of maskholes and the scamdemic… talking our struggles against the pandemic into being’.

Then there are those who use language as Stanley Dubinsky & Michael Gavin state ‘a marker that signals danger and contagion.’

Trump referred to the virus as an “Invisible Enemy” and even “a Chinese Virus”. As Janet McIntosh comments ‘…we have seen his florid playbook at work: anti-PC tough talk; near-gleeful verbal bigotry; theatrical claims and rapid reversals; catchy and chantable hostilities; and a veneer of military grandeur.’

Whilst in the UK, we watched as the Prime Minister and Special Advisor created a story to justify breaking lockdown restrictions, ‘The original aim of the government’s narrative was to justify Cummings’s actions by foregrounding one emotional rationale over another. Okay, so maybe he’d bent the rules ever so slightly with his trip (yes, this was a moral failing on his part), but he did so in order to satisfy a higher moral code: looking after his infant son.’ as Philip Seargeant tells us.

Looking forward though, Florian Coulmas found in his 100 voices project, people hope for truth. ‘This is directed at the willingness of governments honestly to communicate with the public…Yet truth gives us hope.’

So, as we move towards a new year, it is with hope. At the time of writing, a vaccine is being rolled out in the UK. Perhaps the beginning of life getting back to somewhat normal, and coronaspeak, social bubbles and Covid-19 itself being a thing of the past.

The blogs featured here were originally posted as part of our Cambridge Reflections: Covid-19 series, which can be read on our 1584 blog. Betsy Rhymes’ blog ‘The Shared (and Not so Shared!) Language of Covid-19: Our ways with words may be as critical as a vaccine’, can be read here.

English-based coroneologisms: A short survey of our Covid-19-related vocabulary English Today

A message from Cambridge Editors

We hope that you are all keeping safe and well during these strange times. It’s a shame that current circumstances prevent us from meeting in person at conferences this year. Just a brief note to say that if you have any ideas for new books that you’re planning to write – whether it be a book about a ‘key topic’ in your field, or a reference volume for Cambridge Handbooks in Language and Linguistics, or perhaps an idea for a student textbook to support course teaching at undergraduate or graduate levels – please do get in touch and let us know.


Andrew Winnard, Executive Publisher (sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology)

Rebecca Taylor, Commissioning Editor (applied linguistics)

Helen Barton, Commissioning Editor (formal and theoretical linguistics)

Language as Symbolic Power

 Written by Claire Kramsch, author of Language as Symbolic Power

When twenty years ago I decided to teach an undergraduate course on Language and Power in my German department at UC Berkeley,  I didn’t have any other purpose in mind than to share my newly acquired insights into post-structuralist approaches to language study with students who were learning a foreign language. As they were working hard to acquire French or German and to develop the ability to communicate with foreign others, I wanted to show them how much more there is to language than just grammar and vocabulary. Why, behind their choices of what to say, what not to say, and how to say it, there was a whole power game going on!

Many students had never thought about what it took to play that game, neither in their native nor in the foreign language. They still believed the old adage “Sticks and stones/ can break my bones/ but words/ can never hurt me”. I was determined to deflate their bubble and to show them how and why words can hurt – they can make you laugh and cry, and can lead you to action. How often have I been taken in by the sound of someone’s voice, their accent, their choice of words, that have either endeared me to them or turned me off.  Many people fall in love with native speakers because of the way they talk –  I know I have. How often have I been unable to truly understand what a person meant by a word because I didn’t know the word’s history in that person’s culture – the word “people” in English for example vs. “le peuple” in French and “das Volk” in German.  But then, how can we know whether someone is speaking through their culture or through their own unique self?,  I wondered.

As the course gained in popularity and I was invited to teach it for the campus at large, it grew into a full-fledged interdisciplinary course on language as social and political practice and was ultimately transformed into a book, Language as Symbolic Power, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press.

While the class was becoming more and more multilingual and multicultural, so did the examples that the students provided to illustrate the theories we were reading. For example, their examples of child rearing practices from different parts of the world confirmed or disconfirmed Bourdieu and Foucault’s views on the power of discourse and discourses of power.

Over the years the course also became more and more relevant to the current political situation: the fall-out from the 2001 attack against the World Trade Center and the way the media discussed the event; the rhetorical strategies that preceded the war in Iraq and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”; the Obama years  “Yes we Can” and, after the police killing of Trayvon Martin,  “If I had a son, he’d be like Trayvon”.  Indeed, as Panagiota Gounari writes in her introduction to a special issue of the L2 Journal (2020) on Critical Pedagogy and Language Learning and Teaching in Dangerous Times, “language as a site of power, ideological tensions, political and financial interests, hierarchies, and symbolic and material violence, is most definitely a war zone.”

Now that we have lived through four years of Donald Trump’s language warfare, language as symbolic power will be having a field day at the ballot box. No speech act will be more important than the vote we will cast on November 3. The results of the election will show what value we still give to words like “democracy” and “truth”, and how we are to use language on social and other media in the future. They will certainly affect how the readers of Language as Symbolic Power understand the book when it comes out in November.

How a #CheekyNandos became more acceptable

By Laura R. Bailey (University of Kent) and Mercedes Durham (Cardiff University)

Our recent article, A cheeky investigation: Tracking the semantic change of cheeky from monkeys to wines describes the behaviour of cheeky in British and American English.

For Mercedes, growing up in French-speaking Switzerland but speaking American English at home meant having to ‘relearn’ English at school with her classmates. They were learning British English, which, for Mercedes, often led to confusion. Confusion sometimes turned into hilarity, particularly the time she was confronted with a picture of a dog stealing sausages and the exclamation ‘What a cheeky dog!’. Cheeky, for people or dogs, just wasn’t in her vocabulary. Fast forward a couple decades when she moved to the UK, and found that not only was cheeky all over the place but it was used for drinks and food too. #CheekyNandos, so baffling to Mercedes and other American-English-speaking internet users, was commonplace and unremarkable for Laura and other British-English-speakers. Being good linguists, we set up a study.

We knew that cheeky applied to food and drink was newer than cheeky for sausage-stealing dogs, so we wanted to know whether this newer form of cheeky had spread to North America, despite the fact that the older form was known to be used less there. It gave us the opportunity to examine how language changes and how the internet might in some cases spur this on.

It’s no surprise to sociolinguists to find differences when the same language is spoken in different regions, and we know that changes can happen at different times in different places, or simply only happen in one place. But in our highly connected world there are cases where the internet can help spread language, particularly in the case of specific words or phrases spreading via memes.

What’s in a meme?
While our article focuses on existing differences between linguistic varieties that memes and language play can bring to light, memes themselves are language change in action.

Memes are cultural shortcuts: often jokes or satirical social comment, they provide the setup so the memer just needs to find a funny punchline. Part of the joke then consists of the template itself, such as the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme:

the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme, consisting of a woman looking at her boyfriend angrily as he turns to leer at a passing woman. The distracted boyfriend is labelled ‘me’, the passing woman ‘a nap’, and the girlfriend ‘multiple pressing matters and responsibilities’.

As memes become popular and enter the general consciousness of a group of users, they can be modified, illustrating language change processes familiar from the ‘real world’. Soundcloud, for instance, is a site for musicians to host their music. It became popular for a Twitter user to follow up a viral tweet with a reply saying something like ‘Oh wow, this blew up, here’s a link to my Soundcloud if you want to check my music out!’. So many people did this that the text became pretty formulaic and began to be mocked. Now, ‘Soundcloud’ has travelled through a process of trademark genericisation (where the brand name became used as a generic term for any music site), abstraction (where the generic term became a metaphorical term for something to promote, such as a charity) and verbification (it has become used as a verb meaning ‘to promote something under a viral tweet’).

Memes that rely only on a specific sentence construction or phrase, and don’t need the scaffolding of an image or social media platform can break out into the ‘real world’. This has happened in recent months with shortcuts for generational or socioeconomic groups such as ‘snowflake’ and ‘boomer’. While these terms have been around for some time (‘boomer’ has been used to describe the generation born between the World War II and the early 60s since at least its first attestation in the OED in 1976), within the last year the use of the phrase ‘OK boomer’ has, well, boomed. With the help of TikTok it became a meme, and now an utterance of ‘OK boomer’ condenses reams of intergenerational discord into a convenient verbal eyeroll.

The cheeky nandos meme did two things: it highlighted the regional difference that we already suspected was there, given Mercedes’ own experience, and it revealed a linguistic change in progress that is spreading from the UK to the US, at least in part via this meme.

We asked 372 people to rate sentences using the word cheeky. We were especially interested in their answers to the sentences that included ‘old-fashioned’ cheeky, such as He’s a cheeky boy, and the newer use, as in Let’s go for a cheeky nandos after work. We call these Type 1 and Type 2 respectively. Type 1 are the blue squares in this graph, and Type 2 are the orange dots:

Graph illustrating the mean rating (1-6) of sentences containing two types of cheeky. Type 1 are rated between 4 and 5.5 out of 6, and Type 2 are rated at around 4.

You can see that Type 1 and Type 2 (old and new cheeky) are pretty distinct, especially if you only consider the Type 1s that refer to humans and not animals (it turns out Americans think you have to be human to be cheeky, while Brits are familiar with cheeky dogs).

The biggest difference between the UK and North America is revealed if we look at Type 2, the #CheekyNandos type. Cheeky to refer to food, drinks and illicit activities is very much a UK thing, it turns out:

Graph showing that while Type 1 is rated at around 4.5 by both regions, Type 2 is rated at 4.6 by British respondents and 2.8 by North Americans.

We also suspected that the new use of cheeky would be more acceptable among younger people. If it is, this indicates it’s a change in progress (so-called ‘apparent time’). And it is, in both regions: the orange line in both graphs below dips as the age of the respondents goes up. In the UK but not North America, new cheeky is at least as acceptable as the original one, if not more so, for younger speakers. Many respondents said the original meaning seemed old-fashioned, and like something their grandma might say.

Two graphs, showing the relative rating of the two types of cheeky by age group in Britain and Ireland and in North America.

We also looked at whether cheeky was expanding further into contexts such as ‘Let’s go for a cheeky ride’ (we called this type 3). You can see what we found about them, and more about what we’ve talked about here in the full article describing the study in more detail, published in English Today.

Laura R. Bailey (@linguistlaura) and Mercedes Durham (@drswissmiss)

The Karen Stereotype

written by Karen Stollznow, Griffith University, Queensland

Karen is a first name, in fact, it’s my first name, but online, “Karen” has evolved to mean so much more than just a name. In recent years, “Karen” has also become a negative stereotype, a meme, and an insulting epithet. The colloquial meaning of “Karen” is multi-faceted and complicated. The term typically refers to a middle-class, middle-aged white woman who is obnoxious and entitled in her behavior, and she is often racist. She is angry, aggressive, and a bully. Her catch-cry is demanding to “Speak to the manager” of an establishment over the slightest inconvenience. In some versions she even wears a stereotypical hairstyle. Her complaints are selfish and petty. For example, Cathy Hill, a patron at a Red Lobster restaurant in Pennsylvania, was labeled a “Karen” after she brawled with staff this past Mother’s Day, because she believed she had waited too long for her take out food.

In recent months, the label has broadened in usage. “Karen” is now used to refer to a woman who is perceived as ignorant and uninformed, such as “anti-vaxxers”, those who refuse to have themselves or their children vaccinated against contagious diseases. The term is used for those who openly flout health and safety measures like wearing masks or social distancing in public to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. The term also refers to women who initiate confrontations in public that have a more sinister, racial undercurrent. Most infamously, the incident in which Amy Cooper was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park when she illegitimately called the police on birdwatcher Christian Cooper, because he politely asked her to put her dog on a leash. Another current event involved Patricia McCloskey and her husband Mark standing outside their home in St. Louis, Missouri, aiming guns at Black Lives Matters protestors as they marched by their neighborhood.

Historically, other women’s names have been used as related stereotypes. Most notably, “Sally” and “Miss Ann” were generic names for white women, which go back to the time of enslavement in the United States. In particular, these terms were often used within the African American community to refer to a white woman who behaved in a condescending and arrogant manner, especially exhibiting behavior that revealed racist undertones.

In recent years, a series of incidents have constructed the legend of the “Karen” stereotype. In this digital age, these events have been captured on video and posted online. They’ve gone viral and the antagonists were dubbed with alliterative nicknames. In 2018, Alison Ettel aka “Permit Pattie” called the cops on an eight-year-old girl selling water on the sidewalk in San Francisco, because she was “illegally selling water without a permit.” In South Carolina in 2018, Stephanie Sebby-Strempel shouted slurs at a black teenager swimming in a community pool, ordering him to “Get out!” of the water and hitting him repeatedly, the act earning her the nickname “Pool Patrol Paula.” Also in 2018, Jennifer Schulte was dubbed “Barbeque Becky” for calling the police on a black family using a charcoal grill in a park in Oakland, California, because she claimed they were breaking the law. At a dog park in Massachusetts in 2019, “Dog Park Debbie” called the police claiming her dog was being “assaulted” by another dog when it attempted to mount her pet in play. A common thread across these examples is that the women’s actions appear to be racially motivated.

Over the years there have been several contenders to the term in pop culture, including Becky, Tammy, Felicia, Sarah, and Susan. Anyone’s name can potentially be used as a negative stereotype, so why Karen? That Karen won out is largely coincidental, although it was a common woman’s name in the United States and other Anglophone countries spanning the generations of the late Baby Boomers and early Generation X. Data from the U.S. Office of Social Security shows that the name peaked between 1951-1968, when it appeared in the top 10 for the most popular baby names. “Karen” is no longer a popular name among Millennials, Generation Z, or babies, and for these reasons, it sounds slightly old-fashioned to some people’s ears.

But who was the original “Karen”? The origins of the moniker are hotly debated, although the stereotypical use of the name can be traced back to several sources in the early 21st century. In the 2004 film Mean Girls, Amanda Seyfried plays the role of Karen Smith. Revealing the characteristic of a “Karen” as ignorant and oblivious, airheaded Karen asks her friend Cady who’s relocated from Africa, “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” Many people trace the Karen meme back to stand-up comedian Dane Cook. In a 2005 comedy routine from his album Retaliation, Cook delivers a “Karen” punch line in a joke about a friend that no one actually likes. As he says, “There is one person in every group of friends that nobody likes”…“Example, Karen is always a douche bag. Every group has a Karen and she’s always a bag of douche.”

The Karen type even has stereotypical physical attributes. In 2009, Kate Gosselin, the co-star of the mid-2000s reality TV show Jon and Kate plus 8 sported an asymmetrical bob cut hairstyle with blonde highlights. This was dubbed the “Can I speak to your manager?” haircut. Some believe Gosselin was “Karen Zero.” Another theory links the meme to a Reddit account, which was set up by an anonymous man in the midst of messy divorce proceedings. He posted rants about his ex-wife Karen, who allegedly won custody of their children and took possession of their house. The account was later closed, but a subreddit emerged in 2017, which is described as “dedicated to the hatred of Karen” and posting memes of the stereotype. The group features a photograph of Gosselin, whose images are often used to depict Karen. The term has also been used for years on Black Twitter, a subculture of black users focused on issues of interest to the Black community.

The meme exploded amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, bolstered by the growing awareness of police brutality against African Americans. During this time, there has been a trend of exposing “Karens” in video footage on social media, to shame women who have done offensive things in public. These have resulted in varieties of “Karen”, such as “Grocery Store Karen”, who had an altercation with staff in a supermarket in North Hollywood, California, after being asked to wear a mask. “Coughing Karen” intentionally coughed on fellow customers in a New York bagel shop after being asked to put on a mask. “San Francisco Karen” demanded to know if a man who was stenciling “Black Lives Matter” in chalk on the front of his home was defacing public property. These examples typify the “Karen” as an entitled white woman who exploits her privilege when things don’t go her way. Some cases of public shaming have led to real world consequences. Amy Cooper, otherwise known as “Central Park Karen”, was in the wrong, but out of spite she attempted to exploit Christian Cooper’s skin color to persuade the police to arrest or hurt him. She was held accountable for her actions when she temporarily lost custody of her dog, she was fired from her job, and now the police plan to charge her for filing a false report.

Karen has people divided. There are those who are in favor of using the name, because it describes modern racism and microaggressions, and reveals how some white women exploit their social privilege against marginalized groups. The term functions as a label to make fun of these women for their unpleasant behavior and attitudes, and serves as vigilante justice in situations that are morally unjust, and occasionally even dangerous. Others express concern that the bad behavior and actions are conflated with the name, demonizing and stigmatizing people named Karen. Women named “Karen” know that the memes aren’t targeting them specifically, but it can still feel personal, because it’s their name and part of their identity. Of course, a woman named Karen is not necessarily a “Karen.” As we have seen, she has been a Kate, Stephanie, Alison, and Amy. The label is not representative of people who happen to have that name, although some Karens have been vilified, experiencing harassment on social media or bullying in schools, simply for having the name.

There are several arguments against the use of Karen as a generalized insult for any woman perceived as annoying in some way. The term has been criticized as classist and ageist. “Karen” is often middle-class or from a working-class background, which are marginalized groups. She is usually middle-aged or older, which is a group targeted by social prejudice. The “Karen” character may be predated by negative stereotypes of older women in television, who were portrayed as demanding, interfering, nagging busybodies, such as manipulative mother Marie Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond or nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched. A woman might be labeled a “Karen”, not judged for bad behavior, but simply because of her physical appearance, her clothing, or her hairstyle. It is a trope that in some usage has become mired in misogyny. A Karen is invariably a woman, and often a mother. The term has been co-opted by disgruntled online men, especially incels and chauvinists, who take advantage of the meme and use the insult with glee to attack any disliked women, as demonstrated by the Reddit thread. The term has been construed as sexist in that there is no male equivalent for a “Karen.” Male types in popular culture include Chad, Kyle, Ken, and Aaron, but these stereotypes are not as derogatory, while some can have positive connotations. Some women also use “Karen” as a general term of abuse against other women, showing that sexism is commonly endorsed and perpetuated by women.

Karen is a gender stereotype, and as a preconception about attributes or characteristics of women, it can be harmful. There is also the issue of social responsibility. It is convenient to have a memorable, shared name to categorize a recognizable type of behavior, but using names as stereotypes often renders the offenders nameless. Assigning “Karen” as a nickname grants them anonymity. Using their real names, such as Amy Cooper, ensures that these people can be held accountable for their actions.

For a further discussion of related topics, see my forthcoming book ‘On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present’.

SSLA introduces a new Methods Forum

Shortly to be announced in an editorial in the Fall issue of Studies in Second Language Acquisition

Why methods?

SLA has always been and remains a dynamic discipline that employs an increasingly wide range of methodological techniques. More recently, however, large numbers of scholars in the field began to take on research methodology as an explicit and even empirical focus of their work (see overview by Gass, Loewen, & Plonsky, 2020).

What’s new?

SSLA is now taking another step to further the field’s methodological literacy by inviting authors to submit manuscripts to the Methods Forum.

Articles of this type can take a number of different forms as long as the focus is on research methods as applied to SLA. Manuscripts submitted to the Methods Forum can be conceptual, presenting an argument in favor of or against a particular technique or practice.

Submissions might also present empirical data whether
(a) collected specifically for the methods piece,
(b) simulated, or
(c) based on a re-analysis of one or more existing datasets.

Articles in the Methods Forum can also introduce and make a case for a novel technique or a novel combination of techniques. However, all articles in the Methods Forum will provide implications for research design, instrumentation, analysis, reporting/dissemination, interpretation, and/or methodological training in L2 research. Papers discussing methodological issues from all research paradigms, epistemologies, ontologies, and theoretical frameworks relevant to the field are welcome.

On a practical note, we encourage authors to submit to the Methods Forum with a length of up to 11,000 words.

We hope that this new venue will contribute to the ongoing methodological progress of the field and thereby also increase our individual and collective capacity to advance our understanding of L2 development.

We look forward to your submissions.

Submit your article.

Read the SSLA instructions for authors.

SLA Homepage.