Friday, December 08, 2006

mavericks

Ben Zimmer of The Language Log forwarded the following to me some time ago. It originally appeared in the Financial Times (UK), but was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times:
George Bernard Shaw suggested mischievously that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."

Here is a book title — if not a book — that proves it: "Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win."

To Americans, imbued with the frontier spirit, a maverick is an admirable person, independent in thought and action.
But the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition: "a masterless person; one who is roving and casual." A former British Cabinet minister recently was described as a "maverick voice." This was not meant as a compliment.

The mavericks described in "Mavericks at Work" are to be emulated, not disparaged. (Stefan Stern, 'That office "weirdo" might be a maverick", 29 Oct 2006)
At first this didn't sit entirely right with me because of a party I threw--which I'll come back to shortly. But I was reminded of it today when the new New Scientist (9 Dec 2006) arrived with the cover screaming: MAVERICKS: POWER OF THE LONE VOICE. NS is a UK-based magazine, but it has an international readership and is usually edited with consciousness of its varied audience. I was therefore curious to see if the word maverick had positive or negative connotations in the special section dedicated to 'lone voices', like the creationist geologist and the doctor who fed himself bacteria to prove it causes stomach ulcers. The fact of the section itself hints at the possibility that the editors intend to counter the usual assumption that being a maverick is a bad thing. But for the most part, the word is used positively:
Such mavericks are crucial to progress, but are they a dying breed? (Editorial, p. 5)
In other places, it's used as an adjective:
If science were a matter of combining unambiguous data from perfectly conducted experiments with flawless theories, assessing the claims of "outsider" scientists and their maverick ideas would not be that hard. (Harry Collins, 'How we know what we know', p. 46)
Neither of these seems to indicate that the BrE sense of maverick is necessarily "masterless". Indeed the OED lists the sense 'An unorthodox or independent-minded person; a person who refuses to conform to the views of a particular group or party; an individualist' and does not mark this as AmE. So, is the Financial Times writer misrepresenting the BrE situation? Not entirely. One can find plenty of examples, like the one the article cites, of maverick being used with negative connotations in BrE sources:
I suppose that in the years when we were trying to persuade people that Berlioz was a great composer, and not just a maverick or an oddity --David Cairns on Hector Berlioz website

Scientists in Britain tend to exclude controversial "maverick" colleagues from their community to ensure they do not gain scientific legitimacy, new research has shown. --Cardiff University news release
While there are probably similar AmE examples out there, they're harder to come by. (For the ones I've found, a bit of deeper digging often reveals that the writer is not a native AmE speaker.) Part of the reason for this, says my armchair ethno-psychology, is the usual British aversion to self-promotion. (I know plenty of self-promoting Brits, but many more who find the notion extremely unseemly.) In order to be a maverick, one needs not only to be a non-conformist, but also to carry oneself as if one's own ideas are superior to the other ideas on offer. In other words, a maverick has a bit more hubris than a mere eccentric has, and hubris is socially unacceptable.

But getting back to the party I threw... It was a (BrE) fancy dress / (AmE) costume party with a "Metaphorty" theme: everyone had to come as a metaphorical thing they'd been accused of being. I'll come back to this--perhaps in the next post--to talk about some of the metaphors that didn't translate among the BrE- and AmE-speaking guests. The point for the now is that one friend came as a maverick--dressed as Brett Maverick. (I wasn't sure that actually counted as a metaphor, but it was a party, so who cares?) She, an Englishwoman, definitely saw being a maverick as a positive thing.

19 comments:

Mad Queen Bess said...

Hello,
I just wanted to say thank you for your previous post regarding the word sale. I happen to be the winning bidder, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what your student will come up with -I'm sure the friend to whom I plan to give the new word to for Christmas will be delighted! :o)

lynneguist said...

Congratulations MQB! I'm interested to hear what she'll come up with too. Will you report back to us, or is it a private word?

strawman said...

Interesting - I suppose that, if I ever gave the matter any thought at all, I assumed that the term maverick was derived from Brett Maverick, but a glance at Chambers Dictionary tells me that it originates from Samuel Maverick (1803-70).

Chambers' first definition of maverick as a noun is a stray animal without an owner's brand, esp a calf; as a verb, it is defined as to seize without legal claim. The implication of these definitions would appear to be that Samuel Maverick used to seize unbranded stay animals without a legal claim to them (that is to say, Maverick mavericked mavericks) but I can find no evidence for such an allegation. Wiktionary merely says that Samuel Maverick allowed his own cattle to roam free on the range; although Chambers Dictionary names him in the etymology of maverick, Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1997) does not even have an entry for him.

Paul said...

My felicitations too to MQB on her verbal acquisition. Do let us see it after you’ve unwrapped it. Here at the labs we’re working on wordjonesing, the crafting of Welsh neologisms, and eBymology, the study of words created specifically for auction. We also still have a handful of brand-new £25 Algonquian subjunctives left which could just about be giftwrapped and shipped in time for Christmas. If I may suggest a 21st-century definition for maverick: one who visits others’ blogs and posts eccentric comments, sometimes wildly off-topic.

Mad Queen Bess said...

Lol, I don't think it is a "private" word -I think part of the deal is to try and get others to use it as well...I'll be happy to report back to you all as soon as my new word crosses the Atlantic :o)

Rick Sprague said...

When I was a kid I acquired the word maverick with the special meaning of "a wild horse". I never knew it applied to other unbranded animals. (Speaking of the word "unbranded", marketing seems to be taking it over; as I wrote that sentence I wondered about possible ambiguity.)

Merriam Webster suggests that the connection with Samuel Maverick comes from his habit of not branding his horses. Presumably, if you found an unbranded herd you couldn't tell if they were mavericks or Maverick's. In a way, by not branding his horses he laid claim to all wild horses as well.

By the way, Lynne, shouldn't that have been "(BrE) on offer/(AmE) available" in the second last paragraph?

lynneguist said...

Hm, I may need another AmE speaker to confirm that. As one can tell on this blog, I sometimes lose my intuitions for such things. Googling "ideas on offer", there are definite AmE examples, for example here.
But BrE examples come up first (and foremost? No time to troll through the whole batch.

The phrase on special offer is more clearly (to me) BrE--being the equivalent of what AmE confusingly calls on sale (i.e. at a special, low price).

For those of us who earn pounds and are going to the US for the holidays, the whole country seems like it's on a half-price offer/sale.

strawman said...

Some years ago, when I was working (in the UK) for a US company, the International Sales Manager, who came over frequently from Philadelphia, used to regularly repeat the mantra "Pounds are dollars, dollars are pounds", particularly when somebody pointed out that he had forgotten which he was talking about. What this really meant was that we could sell the product in the UK for the same number of pounds as it was sold for dollars in the US, and that UK customers, accustomed to being overcharged, would not notice the difference. He was right.

Equally irrelevantly, I once met a couple by the names of Mavis and Eric, whose house was called ...well, you can probably guess what their house was called.

e-tat said...

'On offer' sounds right from a US perspective, although it might be less common than, say, 'on show'. I would not expect to see 'on sale' in the context of that sentence. The items are not tendered for money....

Mavericks. I've heard the unbranded cattle story several times - and found a nice version of it here. I was formerly under the impression that it was a pervasive bit of American symbolism like the story of George Washington vs. cherry tree. Further exemplified by everyone from Robert Altman to Frank Zappa.

My sense is that rogue carries similar connotations in both languages.

lynneguist said...

I wasn't saying that on sale would go in that sentence, but that it's the AmE equivalent of on special offer. I.e., it was another of my tangents...

M.A.Peel said...

Maverick--there's a group blog reading of Pynchon's Against the Day over at chumpsofchoice.blogspot.com starting on Monday, if anyone is interested.

e-tat said...

A potentially noteworthy word choice by displaced New Yorker Sarah Lyall in the NY Times Week in Review: "a delight in the quality and originality of the insult — characterizes proceedings in the House of Commons, where debates are as quick and sharp as fencing moves, thrust-lunge-recover, so nimble that Congress seems worthy and dull by comparison." (My emphasis)

The article has several other points of interest - such as this one: "Britons seem to have the advantage of accent: their exotic pronunciation can make even dubious observation sound like unimpeachable truth." What can we make of this dubious observation, which appears to have been made by a yankee?

strawman said...

I'm probably the only person who didn't know this, but until I found myself parked next to one on a ferry crossing this morning, I didn't know that there was a car called the Ford Maverick.

The marketing wallahs at Ford, who decided to promote a car with this name in the UK, obviously didn't feel that Maverick had negative connotations, but maybe the UK car-buying public, who apparently never really took this car to their hearts, disagreed. Or maybe they just didn't like the car. It looked pretty nice to me.

Dan said...

The American sense of "maverick" may have been shaped, at least in part, by the career of Samuel A. Maverick's grandson, Maury Maverick (1895-1954).

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1935 through 1938, Maverick led a group of liberal Democratic congressmen who advocated more rapid implementation of the New Deal and who, during their clashes with the more conservative House leadership, became nationally known as "the Mavericks."

As mayor of San Antonio from 1939 to 1941, Maverick was instrumental in developing La Villita and the River Walk; La Villita in particular seems to have been his idea and his project.

During World War II, he made one of his most famous contributions, coining the word "gobbledygook," which he used in a 1944 memo he wrote as chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corporation.

Richard B. Henderson wrote a good biography of Maverick, "Maury Maverick: A Political Biography" (University of Texas Press, 1970).

lynneguist said...

Thanks for all the informative commenting on Mavericks in history (and on the highway/motorway).

John Cowan said...

The traditional story makes Samuel Maverick the victim rather than the perpetrator of false branding.

Peter Maverick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

For more on the word's derivation—http://amaverickamerican.blogspot.com/2007/03/x-my-father-is-quiet-man-term-maverick.html, and http://mavericks.nu.

g sido said...

What a delightful blog! Thanks for another inimitable GBS quote as well, new to me (there are so very many good ones from that mischievous master of maverickocity...)
best to you in all languages or approximations thereof,
Sid