George Bernard Shaw suggested mischievously that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."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:
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)
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 websiteWhile 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.
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
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.