Some Nerve! Chutzpah Explained

By: Dave Roos  | 

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Chutzpah is often defined as nerve, gall, insolence, arrogance and supreme self-confidence. Fernando Trabanco Fotografía/Getty Images

The Yiddish language has gifted English speakers with some irresistibly punchy words that defy direct translation, but are instantly understandable: schmuck, schmooze, schtick, tchatchke, bupkes, klutz, the list goes on.

Chutzpah is a word that should be in everyone's Yiddish arsenal. If you're not familiar with chutzpah, it's often defined in the dictionary as nerve, gall, insolence, arrogance and "supreme self-confidence." But as with all Yiddish words, there's a subtle flavor to chutzpah that eludes easy translation into English.

The late Leo Rosten, author of "The Joys of Yiddish," wrote that chutzpah means "presumption plus arrogance such as no other word, and no other language, can do justice to." Rosten summed it up with this classic example:

"Chutzpah is 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."

That takes some real chutzpah.

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How to Pronounce Chutzpah

First, forget the English pronunciation of the "ch" sound as in church or chutney.

In Yiddish, the "ch" sound is produced in the back of the throat like you're gently clearing out some phlegm. In phonics, the Yiddish "ch" sound is called an "unvoiced dorsal velar non-sibilant fricative." If that doesn't help, here's a video of how to say chutzpah like a pro.

If you have difficulty making an authentic "ch" sound in the back of your throat, you can substitute a regular "h" sound like "hootzpah" (rhymes with "foot spa"!). But whatever you do, don't be like this guy. It takes real chutzpah to pronounce chutzpah so poorly.

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Is Chutzpah Good or Bad?

It's both, really.

Yiddish is derived mostly from German and Hebrew, and chutzpahcan trace its roots back to an ancient Hebrew and Aramaic word חצף which means "insolent" and "impudent," which are definitely negative descriptors. And it's likely that chutzpah was mostly seen as a negative quality among Yiddish speakers in Europe, where it was once the everyday language of 10 million Ashkenazi Jews.

But something happened when Yiddish came to America and mixed with the English usage of "nerve." If someone has "a lot of nerve" it's usually a bad thing. But sometimes it "takes a lot of nerve" to speak your mind or stand up to a bully, which is a good thing.

The word chutzpah pulls off a nifty trick, because on one hand it recognizes that someone's behavior is nervy, brazen or arrogant, but it also tips its cap in respect. Someone with chutzpah isn't ashamed of bending or breaking the rules if it gets them what they want. You might not approve of their behavior, but you respect the chutzpah it took to pull it off.

In its definition of chutzpah, Merriam-Webster cites a news article about the son of a Nike executive who sells rare sneakers, some of which may have been stolen from Nike. "His company, West Coast Streetwear, has figured out how to use technology and chutzpah to buy hot sneakers in bulk before the rest of the market," writes Jeff Manning in The Oregonian.

It takes chutzpah to sell stolen footwear from your mom's company. It's illegal, but it's also kind of cool.

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