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Word Nerd: It takes a lot of gall to accuse someone of chutzpah

“I don’t know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it.”

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow July 5, 2007, in reference to Bill Clinton’s criticism of George Bush for pardoning Scooter Lobby, given that Clinton spent his final hours as president issuing 140 pardons

The word “chutzpah” has become a favourite for commentators to describe the failings of political leaders.

In case you are not familiar with the word, it is defined by the OED as “brazen impudence, gall,” and its etymology is given as “Yiddish.” Chutzpah’s first OED citation is from Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto: “The national Chutzbah which is variously translated as enterprise, audacity, brazen impudence and cheek.” It is worthwhile noting, however, that the OED adds that “this entry has not been fully updated.”

We see a more updated definition in Merriam Webster Online Dictionary (MWOD), which defines it as “supreme self-confidence: nerve, gall.” MWOD provides this sentence: “He had the chutzpah that he be treated as a special case and be given priority in settling his insurance case.”

Needless to say, the above commentators were accentuating hypocrisy and gall rather than the positive sense of ballsiness, but increasingly the lukewarm, approving sense seen in the MWOD definition is employed by many. In fact, when Alan Dershowitz wrote his book Chutzpah in 1992, he defined the word as “a boldness, a certain aggressiveness, a certain willingness to assert one’s rights.”

While the OED shows a Yiddish etymology, ultimately the Yiddish term came from Hebrew, where it has the same negative meaning of “impudence” or “insolence.” There is no positive connotation to the word in either Yiddish or Hebrew.

In an article in Tablet Magazine, Michael Wex states that chutzpah in these languages is an “unambiguous negative quality characterized by a disregard for manners, social conventions, and the feelings of others.” This being said, in the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin, written over 1,500 years ago, there is a reference where the word seems to get grudging respect: “Chutzpah against heaven is of avail.”

Chutzpah is often defined by wags with the aid of an example: A 14-year-old boy deliberately murders his parents with a meat-axe. He’s found guilty by a jury, and the judge asks him if he has anything to say before sentencing. The boy replies, “I hope your honour will show mercy for a poor orphan.”

In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten tells us that chutzpah is “pronounced khoots-pah; rattle the kh around with fervour; rhymes with foot spa. Pronounce the ch not as in “choo choo” or “Chippewa, but as the German ch in Ach! Or the Scottish in loch.”

This sound does not come easy to every Gentile tongue and in 2011, as a prospective Republican nominee for president, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann gave a speech in Charleston, South Carolina, in which she accused Barack Obama of having “chootspa.” Unfortunately, her pronunciation was rendered in the “choo choo” manner Rosten advised avoiding. Her rendition, however, was more authentic-sounding than one that graced Canadian Parliament in the 1990s. Then Reform Party (later renamed Canadian Alliance) backbencher Lee Morrisson from Saskatchewan wanted to refer to Liberal Human Resource Minister Jane Stewart’s gall, but felt that the word gall wasn’t strong enough. So he said, “You got to admire the jutsper of the minister.” Parliament realized a linguistic travesty had been committed and convulsed in laughter. Being Jewish, Liberal Minister Herb Gray was delegated to respond to Morrison’s bastardization and characterized it by these two Yiddish words, “gornisht (nothing) and absolute narishkayt (nonsense).”

This greatly amused the distinguished members notwithstanding the fact that hardly anyone had a clue what Gray had uttered causing Speaker Gib Parent to pronounce, “Order please, I have no way of knowing whether these words are unparliamentary.”

Oy vey!

hrichler@gmail.com

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