Monday, August 22, 2011

Chutzpah is On Track To Be Word of the Year

If Time Magazine had an issue featuring Word of the Year instead of Person of the Year, a leading candidate would be the word Chutzpah, which really has come into popular use during the past few months.

Last week Tablet magazine published an article by Yiddish expert Michael Wex on the re-emergence of chutzpah as a popular word. Chutzpah has been in the public eye this month because of its use by columnists to characterize Standard and Poors' downgrading of the U.S. credit rating and mispronunciation of the word by Congresswoman Michelle Bachman (see video below.)

Wex writes:
The root meaning of “chutzpah” is “to be insolent or impudent,” and “chutzpah” has come into Yiddish with the same meaning as it has in Hebrew: “impudence, insolence, nerve,” to quote Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary. 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. (If he’s a she, the chutzpahnik is called a chutzpahnitseh.) Chutzpah comes to your house for dinner and takes a dump in your potted plant; if it goes to its best friend’s funeral and then propositions the bereaved spouse during the shiva, it’s only because there was no chance to do so at the graveside.
The classic definition of chutzpah is used by the Yiddish and Danish team at Shtetl (formerly known as Shtetl Montreal, the Canadian alternative magazine that maintains a video dictionary of Yiddish words and phrases that we've blogged about a few times.

The use of chutzpah on TV is nothing new. We found the video of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett performing the classic "Chutzpah" sketch on the CBS show Carol + 2 on January 15, 1967. The two comediennes portray cleaning women in the offices of a theatrical agency who fancy themselves big deal makers in the world of show business. The first five minutes set up the background situation for the song, which they launch into after a brief introduction.

They use the word in a positive context, which connotes courage, boldness, or braveness. So which is it, positive or negative? Don't forget that shalom means both hello and goodbye, so why not let chutzpah also have two opposite meanings?  Enjoy!

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