The “Beloved Herring Maven” made his radio debut in 1964. The recurring star of Vita Foods commercials, he spoke in his “everybody’s-favorite-uncle voice,” as The New York Times put it, expounding “on the wonders of herring and sour cream, herring with wine, and other varieties.” He was an advertising mascot, a campy staple of a successful marketing campaign. But he was also, in his own way, a language ambassador, ushering a foreign word into the American consciousness.
The word wasn’t “herring” (which hails from Old High German) but “maven.” “Maven” comes from the Yiddish meyvn—“expert” or “connoisseur”—which itself is derived from the Hebrew mebin—“person with understanding.” It may be connected to the rabbinic Hebrew expression hamevin yavin—“those who understand will understand,” says Northeastern University Jewish studies professor Lori Lefkovitz. Nachmanides, the 13th-century rabbinical scholar known as the Ramban, for example, used the phrase to hint at mystical explanations he didn’t want to spell out, as in, “If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you shouldn’t know what I’m talking about,” says Lefkovitz.
“Maven” is a relatively new transplant into American English. Written references to the word begin to increase in the mid-1960s and continued to rise through the early 2000s, according to Google Ngrams, which charts words’ popularity in books over time. In this way, “maven” follows the same pattern as many other Yiddish words that became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, says Joshua Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center. As more Jews found their place in broader American culture, “you have lots of writers and comedians and different cultural figures using Yiddish words, and then you see [them] getting picked up by non-Jewish writers and speakers,” he says. “It’s totally not surprising that words like ‘maven’ start to come into wider use.”
When Yiddish words trickle into English, they carry a certain edge—“that quality of Yiddish that’s a little bit skeptical and a little bit mocking,” Northeastern’s Lefkovitz says. Think shtick or chutzpah. When we know a word comes from Yiddish, we make assumptions about its tone and meaning. That’s how “maven” acquired its unique twist: “It’s not expertise in the elite sense, but it’s a kind of local, earthy expertise.” Its applications are bottomless. “Anyone can be a maven on anything; it’s so capacious a word,” adds Lefkovitz. “You can be a herring maven, a shoe maven, a mortgage maven, a poetry maven.”
After the Herring Maven, the word’s chief popularizer was William Safire, the pugnacious contrarian who wrote the “On Language” column in The New York Times Magazine from 1979 to 2009 following a stint as Richard Nixon’s speechwriter. “I am a language maven and a political pundit,” he explained in 1985. “A maven is a self-proclaimed expert. When someone says ‘I am a maven,’ however, a note of self-mockery is added, as if to say ‘and if I’m not such an expert, sue me.’” When it came to language, Safire insisted he was not an expert, and the distinction mattered. “[A maven] may not wear the ring of authority, and to a connoisseur he’s no connoisseur,” Safire wrote, “but to his peers, only when it comes to his special interest, the maven has The Word.”
More recently, writer Malcolm Gladwell drew attention to the word in his best-selling 2000 book The Tipping Point, which explores why certain ideas or trends break into the mainstream. Most of these trends, in Gladwell’s view, are driven by three kinds of people: Connectors, Salesmen and Mavens. “The critical thing about Mavens,” he writes, “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.” Gladwell’s mavens are still self-proclaimed experts, but they have a very particular, social brand of expertise. They don’t just love cars; they love helping you find the perfect model. “The fact that Mavens want to help, for no other reason than because they like to help,” Gladwell writes, “turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention.”
Today, the notion of the maven, of the self-styled expert, is more important than ever—think fitness gurus, life coaches, fashion bloggers and Instagram influencers. It’s a good word for our time—for startups and scrappy entrepreneurs—and its synonyms include trendsetters, opinion shapers, tastemakers. Nevertheless, younger Americans use it less frequently. Eighty-nine percent of people over age 75 report using “maven,” according to Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, while only 33 percent of those ages 18–24 use the word.
In fact, decades after it was introduced into English, many of the people who do use “maven” aren’t aware of its Yiddish origins. The word doesn’t sound particularly Yiddish; people tend to associate the Yiddish language with the sound of certain Germanic consonant clusters such as shm or tz, says the Yiddish Book Center’s Lambert. Without any of these identifiers, “maven” isn’t easy to place—especially compared to well-known Yiddish words such as schmuck or klutz. It could even be mistaken for an English word—though a true language maven would surely know better.