Writing in the Atlanta Jewish News, Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols attempts to define “chutzpah,” but instead he demonstrates it.
…Americans need a dose of Israeli “chutzpah.” Chutz-what? you say. Chutzpah is that gall, brazen nerve, guts, and presumption plus arrogance, Senor says. It is everywhere in Israel too. It feels a lot like argumentativeness, but it is different. It is assertiveness, not insolence. It is independent thinking, not insubordination. It is ambition and vision, not arrogance. The differences here appear to be only slight, but they describe the typical Israeli entrepreneur.
Israel is our friend, and they have much to teach us still. I don’t know about you, but I need a little chutzpah in my stocking this year. [Emphasis added.]
Echols may have been mislead by Dan Senor, author of Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, who cites Leo Rosten’s definition of “chutzpah” to mean “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts,’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to,” and considers it a positive attribute of Israel.
But this view of chutzpah ignores the better part of this multi-layered Yiddish word’s meaning. Ironically, Michele Bachmann came closer to proper usage when she slaughtered the word’s pronunciation.
Jack Guggenheim discusses the multi-layered meaning of chutzpah in writing about its use in U.S. Courts.
Part of the uniqueness of Yiddish words like chutzpah is that their meaning varies depending on context and degree. In the right circumstances and to the right degree chutzpah may intimate spunk. But in the wrong situation or to an improper degree, chutzpah implies insolence. In fact chutzpah can have such negative connotation that the word itself has occasionally caused litigation. For example, Senator Charles Schumer was sued, unsuccessfully, on the basis that his statement, “In Brooklyn, we have a word for something like that – chutzpah” was false and defamatory.
Michael Wex, a noted expert on Yiddish, notes that contemporary American usage of the word differs from its historical usage.
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.
The irony at play in the Talmud reaches its fullest development in Yiddish. English-speakers unaware of the irony underlying such uses of “chutzpah” in Yiddish or Yiddish-influenced English simply ascribed a new, highly positive meaning to the term.
The ultimate irony may lie in Echols asking Santa Clause to bring him some chutzpah for his Christmas stocking. Speaking of which, who know what irony means?