The question of the week:
Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?
We’re onto chutzpah today, and this word is something special. For starts, it’s special because it’s Yiddish. And that means two things right off the bat: a, you don’t say it like a chutney disaster – the first sound is /h/ or a stronger fricative, like the end of loch, and it rhymes with foot spa (and indeed with chutzpah there’s always something afoot); b, it carries with it very overt tones of Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Those tones are very deep and complex and are received differently by different people, and you need to be aware that how you intend it may be different from how it is received, not only due to the listener’s attitudes but also due to who you are and who your listener is. That’s not to say this is a word to be avoided; in most contexts it will communicate very effectively. But when you use it, you are making a cultural reference.
Yiddish is a Germanic language, but it has a lot of vocabulary items from Hebrew, and this is one. It comes from Hebrew khuspa, a negatively toned word for “insolence, audacity, impudence”. Chutzpah (anglicized a bit from Yiddish khutspe), however, is at least partly positively toned – even if you’re using it to refer to someone whose character you would not advise anyone to emulate, it still carries a grudging admiration, perhaps even a sort of amazement at the audacious effrontery and, probably, shrewdness. Chutzpah has more guts than nerve does, even more than balls does. And neither nerve nor balls conveys the kind of intelligence that chutzpah conveys.
The best definition of something like chutzpah is an example, and the best example I’ve seen is Leo Rosten’s, from The Joys of Yiddish: “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” No wonder some dictionary definitions include words like “unbelievable gall” – it’s the “unbelievable” that really comes in. More than any of the other choices, this one says “Did he really just do that?!” – and it says it with that kind of laugh that one makes almost involuntarily.
Chutzpah can have more of a business tone to it, too, as well as a natural suitability to the air of a courtroom – famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz titled his 1991 book of essays Chutzpah. Contrast that with some of the other options, such as gall and effrontery, which lean more to the social sphere.
And chutzpah has a bit of electricity in it – that zap in the middle, with the z and the look and sound of tz /ts/. And after the zap… ah. The whole thing sounds a bit like a firework, in fact.
Chutzpah is often defined as “effrontery”. But would you rather use effrontery here? We’ll taste that one next.
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