Maven

By Maeve Maddox

A reader who lives in Cardiff, Wales wants to know more about the word maven:

In the last fortnight or so I’ve twice seen a word I’ve never come across before (and I read a lot!). The word is ‘maven’, and I’ve encountered it in the self-development context. I’ve looked it up and it seems to have come into use in the US in the 1980s, from a Hebrew term. A post on this word would be very interesting.

 
The word maven—also spelled mavin and mayvin—is from the Yiddish word meyvn (plural mevinim): “expert, connoisseur.” The Yiddish word comes from Hebrew mebin, “a person with understanding, a teacher.”

The earliest use cited in the OED (spelled mavin) is dated 1907. The Ngram Viewer graph (set for English) indicates that maven existed in print as early as 1809, mavin in 1813, and mayvin in 1879.

The OED labels maven “chiefly North American” and suggests that its spread may be related to radio advertising introduced by a Chicago-based food company in 1964. The ads were voiced by Allen Swift, who was introduced as “the herring maven.”

Note: Ira Stadlen, known professionally as “Allen Swift,” was an American voice actor who—among many other jobs—voiced Mighty Mouse and characters in the Tom and Jerry cartoons.

Although maven is a new word to the UK reader who suggested this post, the first time I encountered the word maven was while I was living in London. I had a high-rise-dwelling friend who was referred to in a local newspaper article as “a rooftop-gardening maven.”

William Safire, who wrote a weekly column called “On Language” for the New York Times from 1979-2009, referred to himself as “a language maven.” Food writer Arthur Schwartz calls himself “The Food Maven.” A Web search turns up a math maven, a makeup maven, a plumbing maven, and some sort of software “core engine” called “Maven.”

Maven has joined the ranks of guru as a word for a wise or knowledgeable person.

Related post
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6 Responses to “Maven”

  • The Maven

    I read your article and i liked the sound of this word. it’s a refreshing word kinda like separating from bad connotations guru has. so i reserved the domain who knows maybe someday it’ll worth something.

  • Heather

    The Hebrew word is “Mayveen,” and it comes from the infinitive “l’haveen,” meaning “to understand.”
    “Maven” is often used in a sarcastic way–as in “know it all.”

  • Mirel

    Heather has it right. I would transliterate it as mayvin from the infinitive k’havin. In Yiddish it is often used sarcastically as Heather states. In Hebrew it simply means someone understands. But Maeve, it is not related to teaching or teachers in Hebrew. For that there are other words.

  • venqax

    I believe it’s spelled maeven and it means “authority on daily-writing tipology”.

  • thebluebird11

    Just to stick my two cents in, Yiddish is a conglomerate kind of language that borrowed a lot from German, a lot from Hebrew, and then a lot from whatever country the speaker found himself in. Maven is pronounced to rhyme with Raven, and although I agree with the other posts above, it is not primarily used in a sarcastic way, and people can be legitimately called Mavens in a very positive way like the examples you gave. It would depend more on the context and the tone of voice in which it was used.

  • Anne-Marie

    I had always associated the word maven as a feminine word for an expert. Probably because it sounds like maiden.

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