Although I try to keep this a Jewish-language column, sometimes a question is asked of me that offers a pretext for sneaking in an outside issue. Such is a letter I recently received from David H. Margulies of Bethesda, Md. Mr. Margulies writes:
“Contemporary political rhetoric has driven me to explore the origin and meaning of ‘maverick.’ A rather old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary derives the word from one Samuel A. Maverick, (1803-1870), a western cattle rancher who did not brand his calves, and defines it as meaning: ‘1) An unbranded range animal; esp: a motherless calf; 2) an independent individual who refuses to conform with his group.’ To this, the Oxford English Dictionary adds, ‘A masterless person; one who is roving and casual,’ and ‘Western U.S. Anything dishonestly obtained, as a saddle, mine, or piece of land.’ Thus, part of the difficulty with proudly choosing to call oneself a maverick, as John McCain has done in his campaign, is that the word’s connotations are not necessarily positive. Also, do you have any view, or evidence, as to whether the branding of cattle might be viewed as contrary to Jewish law, and whether the original Samuel Maverick may have been Jewish himself?”
I have no evidence at all, but I do have a view, which is that Samuel Maverick is as likely to have been Jewish as is my Russian-born grandfather to have descended from Apache Indians. Presumably, Mr. Margulies asks this question because of the rabbinic prohibition on tsa’ar ba’alei h.ayyim — that is, on causing animals unnecessary pain, a feature of Jewish law that is not found in other traditional legal systems. But you don’t have to be Jewish to pity animals, and cattle branding, although an ancient custom that already existed in Pharaonic Egypt, is not mentioned in, let alone prohibited by, the Bible or (to the best of my knowledge) any other code of Jewish law.
Yet now that we’ve corralled “maverick” for this column, we can permit ourselves a brief discussion of it. Mr. Margulies is certainly right about the word having changed its ambience over time, moving steadily in a more positive direction. Looking at the word’s use in a political or social context alone, we find my 1961 (although based on older editions) Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defining a maverick as “A refractory or recalcitrant individual who bolts his party or group and initiates an independent course”; my 1966 Random House Dictionary of the English Language giving us “A dissenter, as an intellectual, an artist, or a politician,” and my 1999 Encarta World English Dictionary offering an “independent person… who refuses to conform to the accepted or orthodox thinking on a subject.”
From a disagreeably “recalcitrant individual” to a neutrally viewed “dissenter” to a gutsily “independent person” is a fair stretch for a word to travel in half a century. Clearly, it’s better to be considered a maverick today than it once was. But for that very reason, I don’t think Mr. Margulies need worry that John McCain, by advertising himself as one, may be giving Americans the impression that he is recalcitrant. When words shift meanings, their speakers are quick to adjust. In 1960, “awesome” could mean only inspiring fear and wonderment, but no one thinks that’s what you mean when you call a rock band awesome today.
In general, languages are never static. Although we who speak them may have the impression that the words we use are like items in a department store, all having their assigned place and value and waiting to be taken off a shelf, they are more like the flora and fauna of a jungle, each inhabiting an ecological niche that may be in the process of expanding or contracting, and each competing for living space — some being born and others growing old and dying, some devouring others and others being devoured.
The words that change most quickly are usually slang words that sometimes have life spans of only a few years. Those that change the slowest do so at a glacial pace. (That’s pre-global warming, of course; the word “glacial” itself is now undergoing a meltdown.) “Nice,” which is one of the most commonly used adjectives in the English language, has meant what it means today since the 18th century; before that, however, it also meant foolish, wanton, extravagant, elegant, rare, slothful, delicate, effeminate, coy, modest, fastidious and finely discriminating. (This last meaning perished not long ago. Within recent memory you could still say “That’s a nice distinction” and be understood to be talking about something subtle, not about something pleasant.)
“Maverick” was originally a negative word because, among ranchers and cowboys, someone who didn’t brand his cattle was considered headstrong and irresponsible; he’d end up having the cattle stolen and causing quarrels over their ownership. Nowadays, not only are we all against tsa’ar ba’alei h.ayyim, but we’re also hungry for authentic-sounding politicians who have their own opinions and stick to them, so that “maverick” has found a new environment in which to prosper. Mr. Maverick, were he alive today, might even have ended up being nominated for vice president. If elected, though, he wouldn’t have been the first Jewish one.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.