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What is a Maverick?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A maverick is someone who thinks independently, going against orthodoxy and routinely dissenting with popular views. Many people use the term specifically to refer to politicians, although in point of fact anyone can be referred to with this term. The origins of the word are actually quite fascinating, as indeed are the roots of many words which come from the American West.

In the mid-1800s, a gentleman by the name of Samuel Augustus Maverick settled in Texas with the goal of becoming a cattle rancher. By tradition, ranchers branded their cattle with various markings to make them easy to identify, but he refused to do so. Some people have suggested that he was simply lazy, but the real explanation is probably commercial in nature. Maverick knew that, by convention, unbranded cattle belonged to whoever managed to claim them first. Using his political clout, he ensured that any unbranded cattle were regarded as his, since he was the only rancher not to use brands, and in 1867, ranchers started calling unbranded cattle “mavericks.”

It was a brilliant move. Fencing was not widely used in the American West during this period, which meant that cattle roamed freely, often having calves far from the homestead. By claiming all unbranded cattle as his own, this rancher undoubtedly acquired a few cows that actually belonged to other people. Oddly enough, it was only through political power that he accomplished this, and many modern-day mavericks claim to go against the grain of politics.

As the slang term spread across the West, people also started using it in reference to freethinking individuals, meaning that such people were not “branded” with orthodoxy. The first written record of the word in this sense appeared in a San Francisco newspaper in 1886, in a discussion of a political independent.

Individuals may still hear people refer to unbranded cattle as mavericks in some parts of the West, but most people are more familiar with this term in the sense of a rebel. In the 20th century, self-identifying with this term became quite popular, thanks to inspirations like James Dean, and some people actually worked to acquire such a reputation. Politicians in particular like to use the word in their rhetoric to suggest that the voters will be their first concern, and that they will not be afraid to defy party line if they think that the party's ideas run contrary to the interests of the people.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Saraq90 — On Aug 12, 2011

I had heard this term for the first time in the movie entitled "Maverick" starring Mel Gibson. It was a fun movie and so I always thought the term Maverick had come from the wild west sort of time. It seems that thought was not completely off.

I have seen a political candidate use "maverick" as part of his slogan and I now find it kind of funny that the initial use of the word was for a guy who used politics and cunning thinking to get cattle that was not necessarily his.

By bythewell — On Aug 12, 2011

Maverick was also the call sign of the main character in Top Gun.

I never heard of unbranded animals being called Mavericks before. I guess now it is more common to use ear tags than to actually brand cows, which is probably a good thing. And it would be very rare to find one that wasn't tagged. Most cattle are very carefully accounted for nowadays, and not just left to roam free across the prairie.

I think if I found a 'maverick' cow, I would probably call the local animal control, rather than try to claim it for myself!

By KoiwiGal — On Aug 12, 2011

It's really interesting that the term Maverick was actually taken from a real person.

My father and I were once talking about people who lend their names to descriptors like this. We didn't come up with many, and neither of us knew about this one. Houdini is another one, as is Hitler and Einstein.

It's funny that Maverick himself seems to have gone out of the public consciousness for the most part, but the term lives on.

It sounds like he deserved this kind of legacy, at any rate.

By anon82490 — On May 06, 2010

A military officer who entered the service as an enlisted man is also considered a maverick.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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