The "Beloved Herring Maven" made his radio debut in 1964. The recurring star of Vita Foods commercials, he spoke in his "every-body's-favorite-uncle voice," as The New York Times put it, expounding "on the wonders of herring and sour cream, herring with wine, and other varieties." He was an advertising mascot, a campy staple of a successful marketing campaign. But he was also, in his own way, a language ambassador, ushering a foreign word into the American consciousness.
The word wasn't "herring" (which hails from Old High German) but "maven." "Maven" comes from the Yiddish meyvn--"expert" or "connoisseur"--which itself is derived from the Hebrew mebin--"person with understanding." It may be connected to the rabbinic Hebrew expression bamevin yavin--"those who understand will understand," says Northeastern University Jewish studies professor Lori Lefkovitz. Nach-manides, the 13th-century rabbinical scholar known as the Ramban, for example, used the phrase to hint at mystical explanations he didn't want to spell out, as in, "If you don't know what I'm talking about, you shouldn't know what I'm talking about," says Lefkovitz.
"Maven" is a relatively new transplant into American English. Written references to the word begin to increase in the mid-1960s and continued to rise through the early 2000s, according to Google Ngrams, which charts words' popularity in books over time. In this way, "maven" follows the same pattern as many other Yiddish words that became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, says Joshua Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center. As more Jews found their place in broader American culture, "you have lots of writers and comedians and different cultural figures using Yiddish words, and then you see [them] getting picked up by non-Jewish writers and speakers," he says. "It's totally not surprising that words like 'maven' start to come into wider use."
When Yiddish words trickle into English, they carry a certain edge--"that quality of Yiddish that's a little bit skeptical and a little bit mocking," Northeastern's Lefkovitz says. Think shtick or chutzpah. When we know a word comes from Yiddish, we make assumptions about its tone and meaning. That's how "maven" acquired its unique twist: "It's not expertise in the elite sense, but it's a kind of local, earthy expertise." Its applications are bottomless. "Anyone can be a maven on anything; it's so capacious a word," adds Lefkovitz. "You can be a herring maven, a shoe...