A new film shines a spotlight on this made-in-America name
Maverick is an All-American name. Its origin lies in the American West. Its meaning is rooted in independence. And in classic American fashion, “maverick” has been continually reinvented, redefined, mythologized and commercialized. All of these facets—makeover, myth-building and money-making—have a new showcase in the movie Top Gun: Maverick.
The film brings back Tom Cruise as Navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the iconic hero of the 1986 hit Top Gun. The year before that original film came out, only 16 American babies were named Maverick. The number has risen ever since. Last year, America welcomed 6,645 baby Mavericks, making the name more common than Emily or Joshua.
In this 50-year popularity chart, the yellow line represents the release of Top Gun.
Top Gun marked the start of the Maverick era, but it’s only part of the baby name story. This American icon was many generations in the making.
The Original Mavericks
The rare English surname Maverick pops up at multiple turning points in American history. A Samuel Maverick was one of the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1624. Another Samuel Maverick was killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770. And yet a third Samuel Maverick, a descendant of the early colonist, was a 19th-century Texan politician and land baron who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. This Maverick refused to brand his cattle, a violation of ranching norms that led to “maverick” becoming a term for an unorthodox and independent-minded person.
Why didn’t Samuel Maverick brand his cattle? Maverick himself maintained that he didn’t want to inflict pain on animals. Rival ranchers alleged that it was actually a ploy to let Maverick claim all unbranded cattle as his own. Those are the two options for the original maverick spirit: radical kindness or canny greed.
A Turn Toward the Bold
In a land that celebrates independence and romanticizes the Old West, the term maverick inevitably acquired more exciting connotations. By the 1950s it was a staple of westerns like Zane Grey’s The Maverick Queen. These stories took no interest cattle-branding squabbles, instead using the word as a western-themed version of “audacious” or “boldly self-reliant.” In 1957 the TV western series Maverick sparked the word’s first emergence as a baby name.
The name also took off in the realm of branding. (Product branding this time, not cattle.) Many brand names capitalized on the term’s bold frontier image. The Ford Maverick compact car was introduced in 1970 to fight off the new wave of Japanese imports. Ads for the car featured laconic cowboys and country music. The Dallas Mavericks basketball team debuted in 1980 with a logo featuring a big cowboy hat. Maverick cigarettes had been called Harley Davidson cigarettes until the motorcycle maker withdrew its brand license, and the name Maverick was chosen for the same target audience.
Other commercial uses took a more defiant or even militaristic spin. The Mossberg Maverick 8 is a pump action shotgun. The Hughes AGM-65 Maverick is an air-to-ground missile. And of course, in Top Gun Maverick was a navy pilot’s call name.
In the 2008 presidential election, Republican candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin tried to make the label “maverick” their calling card. The campaign’s ads used the word to mean someone fearless in standing up to other politicians. It carried other cultural signals as well, thanks to its history. The choice of the label summoned images of cowboys, shotguns and above all fighter pilots, linking ex-pilot McCain with Top Gun‘s intrepid hero.
The Hit Name Era
As of 2008 the baby name Maverick was only modestly popular, comparable to names like Kale and Trace. Since then it has risen by an incredible 1350%, becoming a top-50 hit. What happened?
We’ve certainly seen notable Mavericks over the past 14 years. For instance, the character Maverick Carter of The Hate U Give helped raise the name’s profile with African-American families. The baby name phenomenon, though, is fundamentally an organic one. Maverick fit the style of the moment and developed its own momentum.
As the uses of Maverick have expanded, the meaning of the word has blurred. It can now represent almost anyone or anything with a daring or virile image. Consider, for instance, the hero of the 2018 space-romance novel Maverick: “Having the Zetithian feline gene gives Larsanken ‘Larry’ Tshevnoe awesome beauty and sensuality unmatched by any other males in the universe.”
The feline space hunk Larry may seem galaxies apart from the navy pilots of Top Gun. Yet could he have been a “Maverick” without them?
Top Gun’s Maverick helped expand the term beyond the realm of cowboys and establish it as a given name. Once it reached a tipping point of familiarity, its own cultural resonance took over. Maverick caught multiple rising waves: bold meaning names, sports names, weapon names, action hero names. The rest is name, brand, and movie history.
The decision to call the new Top Gun film Maverick leverages everything the name has become. The movie is being hailed as the return of the broad-audience action blockbuster. It’s a fitting standard bearer that cements Maverick’s new role as the broad-audience action name.