As fast as new words are created—and you can find out about some of them right here on wwword: precariat, agnotology, schluffing—some old ones seem to be slipping from use, not just because they may feel archaic (like, say, vouchsafe); in fact, some words that were becoming outdated or redundant have been given a whole new lease of life—wireless, for instance—but because they’ve been kidnapped; their usage has been hijacked by a specific association.
What’s the word for “someone just like me”?
Last week I bumped into the director of a graduate program at an art show of his students’ work. We chatted about the possibility of my recruiting some summer interns from their ranks. He asked me to write him an email spelling out exactly the kind of people I was looking for and what they might be expected to do. Back in my office I sat down to write the job description. It covers a lot of ground: I need someone who isn’t too grand to run to the post office and wait in line, but who’s also smart enough to craft a good letter or handle tricky phone calls. I’d like someone who can work with my standard computer programs—Word, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Excel, Quickbooks—but at the same time is able to sew a product sample, do some filing, or even tidy up in a pinch. Somebody independent, a self-starter who can think for him- or herself but can also follow directions. In other words, a person who can do all the things I do but wish I didn’t have to.
While I was trying to find the words to describe such a person—without actually saying “someone just like me”—my hands paused, then hovered, as I contemplated typing maverick. But I couldn’t. Why? Because the word is now forever associated with John McCain’s dismal 2008 presidential run. Ever since a 1993 Washington Post story by Helen Dewar described the senior senator from Arizona as “a conservative with maverick instincts,” it has stuck. Maverick became for McCain what hope was to Obama—or that change has been for almost all presidential candidates; and to top it off, his vice-presidential running mate, the former half-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin, went with it too. I guess maverick is going to have to sit it out for a few decades until, hopefully, it can get its neutrality back. Meanwhile, “just like me” will have to do.