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Maverick and Gobbledygook (minicast)

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We hear the word maverick a lot lately, but where did this term for a stubborn nonconformist come from? Martha tells the story of the Texas politician who inspired the word, and whose grandson apparently coined another familiar English word involving politics: gobbledygook.

Mmmmmaverick. Maverick, Maverick, Maverick. Maverick, Maverick, Maverick, Maverick. Maverick.

Is it just my imagination, or are we hearing this word a whole LOT more lately?

You usually hear it applied a politician who’s staunchly independent and stubbornly non-conformist. But where’d we get an odd word like this? The answer involves a Texas political dynasty that added not one, but two, familiar words to English.

Samuel Augustus Maverick was 19th-century Texas lawyer who went into politics. He was elected mayor of San Antonio in 1839 and later served in the Texas State Legislature. He also speculated in land deals. And he owned cattle, which he kept on a 385,000-acre ranch.

In those days, cattlemen didn’t always fence in their land, which meant their animals often roamed free. So, ranchers branded their cattle to prevent theft, and resolve disputes over ownership. Well, all the ranchers, that is, except for Samuel Maverick.

Maverick was notorious for refusing to brand his own livestock. So whenever his neighbors saw an animal without a brand, especially a calf that had strayed from its mother, they’d say things like, “Oh, that must be a Maverick.”

Maverick told people he considered branding cruelty to animals. Skeptics, though, charged that by refusing to brand his animals, Maverick could then lay claim to any unbranded cattle as his own.

Over the years, this term for a “stray, unmarked calf” also came to apply to any kind of strong-willed nonconformist, particularly a politician not “branded” by special interests.

And the linguistic legacy of this Texas family goes even further. The Mavericks can take credit for yet another familiar English word that involves politics: That word is gobbledygook. Ggggobbledygook, gobbledygook, gobbledygook, gobbledy–well, you get the picture.

Anyway, it turns out that Samuel Maverick’s grandson, Maury Maverick, also went into politics, eventually serving in the U.S. Congress. A folksy, plainspoken Texan, Maury Maverick was appalled by the fog of stuffy, obfuscatory, bureaucratic language that hangs over and permeates Washington.

In 1944, he penned an official memo to his colleagues and subordinates, urging them to speak and write in plain English. The memo read in part: “Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For Lord’s sake, be short and say what you’re talking about… Anyone using the words ‘activation’ and ‘implementation’ will be shot!”

Talk about a real Maverick.

Congressman Maverick later said he wasn’t sure why the crazy word gobbledygook popped into his mind at just that moment. “Perhaps,” he said, “I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledy-gobblin’ and struttin’ with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of … ‘gook.'”

In any case, both “gobbledygook” and “maverick” turned out to be way too useful to be forgotten. Both found their way into dictionaries–and onto the front page, especially in this election year.

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