How did a Yiddish noun with Hebrew roots and a sardonic connotation become a popular brand name, a scientific backronym, and even a baby name?
That’s the question I address in “Understanding Maven,” my May column for the Visual Thesaurus. I trace the spread of maven in mainstream culture back to a regional ad campaign in the 1960s and to two widely read journalists, William Safire and Malcolm Gladwell. As for the “Maven” baby name, it seems to be an extension of the Irish girl’s name Maeve—even though “Maven” is a masculine noun in Yiddish.
Access to the column is paywalled for three months; here’s an excerpt:
Maven’s real tipping point was … well, The Tipping Point, the 2000 book by Malcolm Gladwell that asserted that “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” Long before “influencer” became a job description, Gladwell divided influential people into three groups: connectors, salesmen, and—you guessed it—mavens. Mavens, Gladwell wrote, “are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know”:
The critical thing about Mavens is that they aren’t passive collectors of information. It isn’t just that they are obsessed with how to get the best deal on a can of coffee. What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that deal, they want to tell you about it too.
The Tipping Point became a best-seller and a favored reference in leadership seminars and marketing courses. It also enhanced our vocabulary. Not only did it make “tipping point”—a term used mostly by scientists beginning in the late 1950s—a household phrase, it educated thousands of readers about maven. Many of those readers went on to start companies that they named “Maven,” often explicitly acknowledging their debt to Gladwell and The Tipping Point.
UPDATE, May 27: The software company Mavenlink, which I mention in the Visual Thesaurus story, has been renamed Kantata following a merger. According to the press release, the new name “was inspired by ‘cantata’ – a classical music composition that intricately and beautifully combines multiple voice and instrumentation elements. This style of classical music is a metaphor for the collaborative creation that is the foundation of all successful professional services organizations.”
Blog bonus 1: Here’s a sampling of the 290 (to date) live trademarks and trademark applications for MAVEN in the US Patent and Trademark database (there are also a handful of registered trademarks for alternate spellings): Vapor Maven, Cannabis Maven, Maven Hotel, Legal Maven, Midwest Maven, Everymaven, Franchisemaven, Maven Jiu-Jitsu Academy, Maven Cosmetics, Brow Maven, Marshmallow Maven, Raven the Science Maven, Death Maven. (Death Maven is a patient-advocacy group that mediates “disputes regarding elders, their families, caregivers and stakeholders.” It’s not to be confused with The Death Mavens, which provides “a variety of safe places to explore death.”) The oldest live trademark in the database is for The Mah Jongg Maven (in use since 1998, registered since 2003), which makes sense: the Chinese tile game mah jongg has been popular among Jews, and especially Jewish women, for almost a century.
Blog bonus 2: “Mission maven seeks to string 30,000 lights across S.F. streets,” front page of the print edition of San Francisco Examiner, May 5, 2022. “Mission” refers to San Francisco’s Mission District.
Blog bonus 3:
A spoofy “Mayven University” sweatshirt from the 1980s, listed on the resale site Poshmark. The slogans inside the “seal” bespeak the “know-it-all” sense of “mayven/maven”: “Opinion Above Knowledge,” “Illuminate the World,” “Listen to Me.” (I used to own this sweatshirt! OK, not this one, but a sweatshirt of identical design, and I am so, so sorry I gave it away.)
Blog bonus 4:
The Namerology blog identifies “Maevynn” as a female baby name that made its first appearance in the US in 2021, when it was given to five or more babies: “America has fully embraced the classic Irish name Maeve: its popularity has risen by 350% over the past decade. And like a hit song, a hit name inspires remixes.”
Related, Yiddishly: I wrote in 2009 about Zafgen, an obesity drug whose name is derived from the Yiddish adjective zaftig, which translates to “plump.”