Friday, October 10, 2008

M is for...

Okay, let's forget for the moment all the countries beginning with M that I don't know anything about--Mali and Mauritania, I'm looking at you. There is a word beginning with m that has been much in the news lately, a word thrown about in that cavalier fashion that is so characteristic of words that appear on this blog. It has to do with the presidential election and will be heard far more in Republican speeches than Democratic ones. Got it? Give up?

The word is 'maverick', of course. Now I think we all think we know what this word means. Trailblazer, or something to that effect. I think of that early television show of the same name, and am sure it was intended in a positive light, and that the McCain/Palin ticket are attempting to draw of sort of reflected aura from it by using it every chance they get.

So I know how to use the word in the common parlance. But is a maverick a positive characterization as originally used? My understanding of the word, probably hideously wrong, is that it refers to a steer who wanders away from the herd. Not necessarily a good thing from the cowhand's point of view. But let's find out the definition before I wax philosophical...

Well, it's interesting because there are a couple of different kinds of ideas and meanings floating in the word. It does indeed mean a person of independent ideas. But the animal form of maverick is not at all what I pictured. It means an unbranded animal, particularly stray calves who have been separated from their mothers, and thus become fair game for the person who first brands them. The name was apparently taken from that of a Texas rancher, Samuel Augustus Maverick, who apparently left his own calves unbranded, though on what basis, I do not know.

The Wikipedia article on Mr. Maverick says that his not branding cattle was not a result of his independent thinking, but because of his basic last of interest in ranching, a turnabout that amuses me for some reason. Getting credit for unconventionality when you are just lazy sounds about right to me, at least in as far as how reputations get made.

In what I suppose is one of those never to be resolved arguments about history, Maverick said that his reason for not branding was that he did not want to inflict pain on the calves. His enemies suspected that his real reason was that he wanted to pick up any unclaimed, unbranded calves as his own. This is probably a litmus test for our own feelings about human nature. Was he compassionate or just greedy? I think my own answer is that he could very easily have been both. It would fall quite comfortably in the middle range of the human spectrum.

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