Are you confident in the meaning of chutzpah?

This week [2 February 2013] we investigated chutzpah, a Yiddish word made popular by the American writer, Leo Rosten, and now absorbed into all forms of English.

In an article about the partner of Julia Gillard, then Australian Prime Minister, Tim Mathieson (often designated Australia’s “First Bloke”) the author rather unfavourably compares him to other spouses of previous Australian Prime Ministers:

He has none of the easy charm of Hazel Hawke, none of the magnetic chutzpah of Margaret Whitlam, none of the burning sexual energy of Dame Enid Lyons.

It was the second time that day that I had read chutzpah in an Australian news article. Chutzpah (prounounced huut spa) is a Yiddish word popular in American English. It is surprising to see it used so frequently in Australian English and even more surprising to see it used for Margaret Whitlam.

Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazi Jews (or Ashkehazim), who had settled in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Many of the Ashkenazim immigrated to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries taking Yiddish with them. The number of Yiddish speakers in the world has been reduced over the last hundred years because of the Holocaust and also because Israel, as the Jewish state, adopted Hebrew in preference.

Yiddish received a boost with the publication of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish in 1968. Rosten (pictured) was an American writer, humorist, scholar, social commentator and language enthusiast. He produced a range of fiction and nonfiction works in a long career but was best known for his books celebrating Jewish language, humour and culture (including one of my favourite books, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N). His family were Ashkenazim and had migrated to the US in 1911 when he was a young boy.

The Joys of Yiddish is a vast lexicon of Yiddish expressions and words that have been assimilated into English. It has been credited with establishing chutzpah and many other words into English. Rosten created a definition of chutzpah that is almost universally quoted:

… 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.

(In a little twist, it has been pointed out that this story was originally told by an earlier, non-Jewish, American humorist called Artemis Ward about a fourteen year old boy in Arkansas who kills his parents with an axe. Therefore it is not based on Yiddish folklore as is assumed but from earlier American roots.)

Rosten’s definition doesn’t really explain how we should judge the self-made orphan. Is it audaciousness or unthinking arrogance? In America where there is still a strong Yiddish-speaking, Jewish community, chutzpah has a conflicted meaning. Michael Wex, a contemporary US writer on Yiddish, points out that when classical Jewish texts use chutzpah to mean courage or strong gumption it is done so only ironically:

There’s nothing good about chutzpah in Yiddish; it’s an unambiguously negative quality characterized by a disregard for manners, social conventions, and the feelings and opinions of others. The chutzpahnik’s self-regard and sense of entitlement are so total that he’s unable to see that other people are just as real as he is.

Chutzpah in Yiddish denotes the behaviour of the selfish chutzpahnik. In contrast, English usage gives chutzpah a mostly positive meaning equating to the behaviour of the confident charismatic person (as in the reference to Margaret Whitlam). Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as extreme self-confidence or audacity and states that it is usually used approvingly. So those of us outside the US—and not without a little bit of chutzpah ourselves—can take the English, positive meaning of chutzpah with confidence.