Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Negating History and/or Definitions?

As a linguist, English teacher and writer/editor, I have to comment on this recent story not with a political lens, but for the pure enjoyment of the negated technicalities and historical implications, meanings and readings of a word which has now become ubiquitous in this Presidential election (on BOTH sides, though one side utilizes it much more than the other.) Wouldn't it make a great morning essay?--respond to this current event news, with a lens for connotative vs. denotative word meanings, etc.

Excerpted from Sunday's New York Times

"There’s that word again: maverick. In Thursday’s vice-presidential debate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the Republican candidate, used it to describe herself and her running mate, Senator John McCain, no fewer than six times, at one point calling him “the consummate maverick.”

But to those who know the history of the word, applying it to Mr. McCain is a bit of a stretch — and to one Texas family in particular it is even a bit offensive.

“I’m just enraged that McCain calls himself a maverick,” said Terrellita Maverick, 82, a San Antonio native who proudly carries the name of a family that has been known for its progressive politics since the 1600s, when an early ancestor in Boston got into trouble with the law over his agitation for the rights of indentured servants.

In the 1800s, Samuel Augustus Maverick went to Texas and became known for not branding his cattle. He was more interested in keeping track of the land he owned than the livestock on it, Ms. Maverick said; unbranded cattle, then, were called “Maverick’s.” The name came to mean anyone who didn’t bear another’s brand.

Sam Maverick’s grandson, Fontaine Maury Maverick, was a two-term congressman and a mayor of San Antonio who lost his mayoral re-election bid when conservatives labeled him a Communist. He served in the Roosevelt administration on the Smaller War Plants Corporation and is best known for another coinage. He came up with the term “gobbledygook” in frustration at the convoluted language of bureaucrats.

This Maverick’s son, Maury Jr., was a firebrand civil libertarian and lawyer who defended draft resisters, atheists and others scorned by society. He served in the Texas Legislature during the McCarthy era and wrote fiery columns for The San Antonio Express-News. His final column, published on Feb. 2, 2003, just after he died at 82, was an attack on the coming war in Iraq.

Terrellita Maverick, sister of Maury Jr., is a member emeritus of the board of the San Antonio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Considering the family’s long history of association with liberalism and progressive ideals, it should come as no surprise that Ms. Maverick insists that John McCain, who has voted so often with his Republican party and for conservative ideals, “is in no way a maverick, in uppercase or lowercase.”

“It’s just incredible — the nerve! — to suggest that he’s not part of that Republican herd. Every time we hear it, all my children and I and all my family shrink a little and say, ‘Oh, my God, he said it again.’ ”

“He’s a Republican,” she said. “He’s branded.”

End of excerpt.

Now, while this clearly demonstrates the origins and meanings of the word, it doesn't address the main concern with how some of our most noted (because of exposure in media, press, etc.) citizens, representatives, etc. can frequently utilize a word without knowing the true definition of the word. Certainly somehow had to have looked it up to ensure it was a safe word, without denotations to the opposite, or had changed over time? I think this is a great argument for stronger and more reformed education. (NOTE: I am not assuming, presuming, labeling or otherwise implying that any candidate or anyone associated with his running is uneducated or in need of more education.) We need people who are going to open a dictionary and say, "well, actually, the word looks like it once meant something associated with liberalism and anti-established government. Maybe we should look for a suitable alternative." Crisis, argument and ubiquitous keyword averted. Though, if this is impossible (as it very well might be), at least it is important to spread the definition of words around so that we don't have middle-class Americans saying, "what does maverick mean? Something that is better or doesn't go with the wrong decisions?" (Read Chicago Sun-Times article on this exact quote...)

I know others will argue, it's like the definition of 'weird' when it first became a regularly used word. Weird once meant something closer to coincidence and fate, whereas now it means something mysterious or out of the ordinary (strange). They will argue there is no need to know that if you are using it during a Presidential debate, and they are right. So perhaps this argument does go both ways. There's an argument to immediately stop using it since technically it's like putting a square peg into a round hole, but at the same time, the other side may argue this hole is flexible and can easily accept the square peg, thereby making it perfectly acceptable to apply the word. Hmm...a great topic for an essay.

Though, isn't it weird how a word's definition and connotations change over time? Dually important to know, though.

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