The Grammarphobia Blog

Mavens, shmavens

Q: I have long thought that the word “maven” had a certain ironic or humorous tone to it. I thought it referred to a self-appointed expert, someone who is self taught, not formally educated in his area of expertise. I was surprised to see that the Oxford American Dictionary defines it as an expert or connoisseur. Has the definition changed over the years? Do you know when it first appeared in standard dictionaries?

A: The word “maven” is derived from the similarly pronounced Yiddish word for expert, which in turn comes from the Hebrew for one who understands. In English, it means a person with special knowledge or experience.

The first published reference in English appeared in the Jewish Standard of Toronto in 1950, though it was then spelled “mayvin,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the next couple of decades the word appeared in several different spellings (“mayvin,” “mavin,” “mayven,” and the eventual winner, “maven”).

I can’t tell you when it first first showed up in dictionaries, but it’s not in my 1954 Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.) or in a 1972 Merriam-Webster pocket edition under any of those spellings. I do find it in a 1979 Webster’s New World edition (spelled alternately “maven” and “mavin”), with this definition: “an expert or connoisseur, often esp. a self-proclaimed one.” Current dictionaries, however, don’t include the “self-proclaimed” angle.

The OED suggests that the word “maven” may have been popularized in English by a Vita Herring advertising campaign in the mid-60s. The dictionary includes this 1965 citation from the Hadassah News:

“Get Vita at your favorite supermarket, grocery or delicatessen. Tell them the beloved Maven sent you. It won’t save you any money: but you’ll get the best herring.”

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