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language maven

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Definition:

An informal term popularized by journalist William Safire for a self-appointed authority on English usage.

Language mavens are generally prescriptive grammarians with little or no background in linguistics.


See also:

Etymology:

Maven is from the Yiddish word for "expert"

Observations:

  • "Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century. All the best writers in English at all periods, including Shakespeare and most of the mavens themselves, have been among the most flagrant flouters. The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all."
    (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct. Morrow, 1994)


  • The Archetypal Grammar Grouch
    "The archetypal grammar grouch feels that
    - English (or another language) is threatened as never before in its history.
    - Language education is at an all-time low.
    - Innovations, from pronunciation to vocabulary to grammar to slang, harm the language.
    - Technology is aiding and abetting this mess.
    - Before long, we will barely be able to communicate at all.
    - The stickler is part of a hardy band of people who simply refuse to see standards lowered.
    In other words, language 'sticklers' thrill in a sense of uniqueness: their language is especially precious, it is especially threatened, and it is especially threatened right now as opposed to other times in history. . . .

    "If you look at the historical record, you will find that language has always been in decline. Which means, really, that it never has."
    (Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak. Delacorte, 2011)


  • "You may be surprised, if not astonished, to learn that language mavens can get as muddled as the next guy when English changes. We often resist using fine old words in new ways, and cling to traditional usages that are almost certainly lost causes. . . . Change is inevitable, and some good words will be lost. And so on and so forth. Yes, I know all that, but I don't always like it."
    (Patricia O'Conner, Origins of the Specious. Random House, 2009)


  • "Even where the term maven is uncommon (as in Britain), the language maven is a recognizable species. . . . What do language mavens do? Stereotypically, they write letters to newspapers deploring various solecisms and warning of linguistic decline."
    (Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene. Routledge, 1995)
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