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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?

  • My dictionary warns that maven is American slang, so other readers may not know the word. – GEdgar Jan 6 at 2:02
  • It would be in an American informal context. – JAck28 Jan 6 at 2:03
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    @JAck28 Could you please show us an example sentence or two demonstrating how you would like to use maven here? – tchrist Jan 6 at 16:53
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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:

Google N-grams re­sult con­trast­ing US with UK us­age fre­quency for “maven”

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.

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maven OED

  • 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.

As in:

Lifestyle maven Martha Stewart also offers holiday meal kits through her partnership with Marley Spoon. Washington Times Nov 27, 2018

and

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.

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    über” mit Umlautbuchstaben, nicht wahr? :) – tchrist Jan 6 at 16:20
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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.

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