I’m interested in using the word maven to describe someone as being an expert, but don’t want to seem condescending. Does maven have any negative connotations?
The OED identiﬁes maven as being chieﬂy North American in its usage pattern, but they say nothing about the word being cant or jargon, casual or colloquial, nor even informal. (That said, the Oxford Living Dictionaries entry does label the word as being North American informal.)
The OED does have an etymological frequency note observing that:
The currency of the word is said to have been boosted by the advertising campaign for Vita Herring, launched in the United States in 1964.
Google N-grams queries suggest that usage of the word in British publications has really only picked up over the last couple of decades:
Which is interesting, but should not affect you at all for your stated American audience.
It’s how you use this word that determines whether it’s a pejorative use, a laudatory one, or nothing more than simple, uncolored identiﬁcation of someone with domain expertise. For example, here’s one illustrative and relevant citation from the OED, taken from the quarterly academic journal English Today published by Cambridge University Press, that is manifestly free of bias:
- 1991 Eng. Today Oct. 57/2
I have in mind such English language mavens as William Saﬁre and Robert MacNeil.
Speaking of whom, in his intro to Quoth the Maven: More on Language, author William Saﬁre writes that the indeﬁnite article preceding the trailing appositive in “William Saﬁre, a language maven” comes oﬀ as a put-down; that the deﬁnite article in “William Saﬁre, the language maven” makes it seem like he's the only one; and that the noun phrase used attributively without an article in “language maven William Saﬁre” is completely neutral, neither titular nor honoriﬁc.
This is not some special property peculiar to the word maven alone, nor even to word mavens alone. It’s just how appositive or attributive noun phrases work when combined with the deﬁnite or indeﬁnite articles—or with none at all.
Origin: A borrowing from Yiddish. Etymon: Yiddish meyvn. Etymology: < Yiddish meyvn (plural mevinim) expert, connoisseur < Hebrew mēḇīn... chiefly N. Amer.
An expert, a connoisseur; a knowledgeable enthusiast, an aficionado.
Whether fashion, food, or any field of endeavor, someone who really knows his stuff about a topic is a maven, or a person particularly skilled in the field.
Lifestyle maven Martha Stewart also offers holiday meal kits through her partnership with Marley Spoon. Washington Times Nov 27, 2018
The manners mavens at the Emily Post Institute suggests the tip equal the cost of one visit, which according to HomeAdvisor averages at $167. Seattle Times Nov 25, 2018
In my experience in AmE, its use is neither derogatory nor slang, and is used quite liberally, though not uber frequently.
There's a difference between connotations and implications. Yes, these are related and may overlap but are not identical.
A maven is an expert. It is a very recent introduction into English (~1965). It comes from Yiddish for 'expert'(and to there from Hebrew), but it doesn't have the Northeast US feel of other Yiddishisms. It's not an official term like 'doctor', it implies more of a straightforward mastery of knowledge. That is, you probably wouldn't say that Dr. So-and-so is a maven of pediatric GI surgery, but you might say that they are a maven of Australian wine varieties.
You would be condescending if the person you're using it for is actually not worth the label, but this says more about the word 'condescension' that 'maven'. Condescension is when you are overstating something for someone who may not deserve the the hyperbole. 'My 7-year old is truly a maven of Lego construction' would be condescension.
As to implication (or rather the pragmatic 'implicature'), if you use 'maven' rather than say 'expert' or 'professor' or 'industry leader', then the implication might be that they are not as official an expert as they could be. Depending on the context, this may imply something negative about the person, but it is not an inherent negativity about maven.
So whatever the connotations or implications of 'maven', inherently the word is not negative itself. Any negativity would come from the context it might be used in.