Just the other day, someone described me as having chutzpah, because of some small thing I said in a meeting that no one else seemed willing to say. I wasn’t sure if I was being complimented or not, or even if chutzpah was the right word for such a small thing, but the moment stuck with me.
According to Wikipedia, chutzpah is a Yiddish word meaning audacity. It has strong negative connotations, but can also be interpreted in a positive way, as courage or guts. It’s originally from the Aramaic/Hebrew root word “Chataph,” meaning insolent or impudent, and is often used to refer to someone who has overstepped the boundaries of polite behavior.
And I can see that in myself, because I’m not especially good at being polite. I’ve often gotten in trouble for saying things I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to say. Chutzpah, even the saying of it, requires impoliteness, like coughing up phlegm, and not being so lady-like or quiet.
If we stick with the root word, chataph, and define chutzpah as insolence or impudence, both of those words describe the behavior of someone with less power towards someone with more power, and that fits with the origin of my impolite behavior, in childhood. A parent can’t be impudent or insolent towards their child; they can be mean, insensitive, hurtful, etc., but a child can be impudent or insolent towards a parent or other adult, breaking the rules of conduct and risking punishment by ignoring the rules imposed on them.
Yiddish as a language overall has chutzpah. It’s heretical, and powerful, and antagonistic to the norm, and in my quiet way I am all of these things; not because I want to be, but because my reality is so different from what I’ve been told to expect.
Yiddish almost became a dead language, when the majority of Yiddish speakers were killed in the Holocaust, but it’s coming back to life, and I think that’s because it serves a much needed purpose. Yiddish is about seeing the world from an outsider’s perspective, and poking a finger at those in power, and being subversive, and funny. It’s a language that is used to talk behind someone else’s back (preferably someone who doesn’t understand Yiddish), or to take the stuffing out of a person (who does understand Yiddish), or to complain about a frustrating reality, or to do some truth telling instead of trying to calm the waters.
As I said in the beginning, my form of chutzpah is generally a willingness to say what no one else in the room will say: that the emperor has no clothes on, or that the elephant in the room is starting to smell. I’ve done that from early childhood, not because I wanted to be disruptive or rude or audacious, but because I couldn’t figure out why no one else was acknowledging the obvious, and it hurt my brain to try to pretend things weren’t happening when they were. I don’t mind politeness in general, I just mind it when it is hiding important truths. Like, let’s not pretend that the guy in the doorway with a gun is just coming over for tea, okay?
I read another definition of chutzpah, though, that said that someone with chutzpah is someone who ignores what others think, and denies personal responsibility for their actions, and lacks remorse, regret, guilt, or sympathy. And that’s not me at all. But it’s hard to get a handle on a word that means so many different things to different people. It’s not a word like, say, light bulb, which everyone will understand in pretty much the same way.
I had an English teacher in High School who made us memorize definitions for our vocabulary words, and if even one word varied from the exact definition she’d given us, we’d lose points. She didn’t test us on our ability to comprehend the word in context, or to use it in a sentence, instead she treated every word as if it had an exact and unchanging meaning. Except, words aren’t like that. Words are adopted and adapted to fit the current needs of the speakers of the language. I see this every week in my online Hebrew class, where words I learned thirty years ago have gone out of style, or picked up new baggage from how they’ve been used on the street or in business or in politics in Israel.
I’d like to think that if I do have chutzpah, it’s the good kind and not the sociopathic kind, but most of the time I feel like I don’t have enough chutzpah, or self-confidence, or whatever it takes to really make a mark in the world, and make change. It takes so much energy to speak up in a discussion, and argue against the speaker’s certainty, only to find out later that mine was actually the majority opinion in the room but no one else felt free to say anything. I’d rather not have to fight at all, honestly, but that doesn’t seem to be an option. So, maybe next time I have to be chutzpahdik and speak an impolite truth, someone else will stand up and be chutzpahdik with me. God, that would be so much better.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?
I hope there is a resurgence in use and understanding of languages like Yiddish so it can grow and evolve as other languages also grow and evolve. I hope we have the ability to also record these changes so in the future, people can understand how we used the words for scholarly purposes.
As much as I love the bible because of my faith and believe it is God’s Word, I also like learning how the words were originally used and the context in which they were written.
Languages are fascinating!
‘that no one else seemed willing to say’–oh, yes! In every meeting I have ever been in, all it takes is one person speaking up to turn the conversation around. Yay you, Rachel! Whoever told you you had chutzpah was either very happy you spoke up or was the one you spoke against. I repeat–yay, you!
I think Chutzpah is one of those words that are hard to pin down whether it is positive or negative. Maybe it can be both like you say. Yesterday, when I participated in a book club discussion someone said that the guy sitting to the left of me had a lot of chutzpah, but it did not come across as critique to me. It was just funny, and we laughed.
So much relies on context.
Love the dogs, but what a pleasure it was to see you in a photo! Keep on being chutzpahdik–the world needs more outspoken truth-tellers!
In my mind, chutzpah means more “gutsy” than “impudent”. I think you are gutsy!
Thank you! I keep trying!
After reading your blog for a while, I’d say you’ve definitely got the good chutzpah and agree with Lois above.
Thank you so much!
You’re very welcome
The frustration and the great joy of language is that it’s so fluid. It’s a free spirit, always changing and evolving, refusing to be contained. Communication is an art rather than a science, and some confusion is inevitable! I’m with Bitey Dog in that for me too (in the UK) chutzpah means “gutsy”.
Well done, you, for being gutsy…that’s a good thing to be.
“But are there snacks to go with the tea” Teehee! I’m sure chutzpah was meant as a compliment when it was applied to you. I never heard the sociopathic definition and I don’t like it one bit! I first heard of chutzpah in a sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, and it was definitely a good quality.
I love etymology. Your exploration of chutzpah is thoughtful and reminded me that I sometimes need more of it.
Just imagine Cricket as the Chutzpah angel barking on your shoulder.
Ha ha, that would be awesome!
I’m fairly certain you have good chutzpah, Rachel. I love reading your blog, it’s so interesting.
Thank you so much!
Oh yes, being told you have chutzpah is a good thing. My dad spoke Yiddish. He wasn’t Jewish, but had many Jews in the neighbourhood.
Yiddish has a way of sticking with people.
It’s OK, Rachel, I’ve got some chutzpah in me too that breaks free every once in a while, and I’m not a sociopath, either!
Ha! Good to know!
I personally, think it’s courageous to call out the elephant in the room. If that is chutzpah, I want more of it than I have! We’ve all become so terrified of offending each other that we’ve become fearful of speaking even the most obvious truth! Kudos to you and keep it up!
We’ll encourage each other!
Nothing I admire more than chutzpah – good for you!
P.S. Love the picture, too!!
I am not Jewish, but I am sure you have good chutzpah!
Well done for being the only one to say what needs to be said. That reminds me of how I was at the time I was still working. Now I am retired, the occasion rarely presents itself.
Best wishes, Pete.
Well said. Definitely a dangerous space to inhabit.
I have a friend who I helped out financially tell me I had Chutzpah, but he used as a positive connotation to express gratitude to my selfless act.
Chutzpah is a wonderful asset! My parents always taught us to have chutzpah and stand up for what you believe is right.
I love that!
I’m pretty sure that in the New York area we consider chutzpah a positive attribute.
It always depends.
Like your pups, I’m with you! We need many more truth-tellers. Your etymological discussion was fascinating, and it sure sounds like you have the good chutzpah. Kudos!
“You” know whether or not if you’re being rude. So speak your mind, girl. Those, especially of your generation, should realize what your “innocent” meaning really is or that you’re not being offensive. That’s what happens with our diverse definitions of words. (I hope I’ve expressed this right.)
Thank you for the explanation and exploration of the word chutzpah. Its origin was something I hadn’t thought about until now even though I grew up with grandparents who spoke Yiddish. I’ve always thought of it with a positive connotation and imagine when you’ve been told you’ve got chutzpah it was meant as a compliment.
As a young teenager, I remember being old enough to not mention ‘the elephant in the room’ because it would be impolite but wishing I could. As an adult, I’m more likely to do so because I know how to do it gracefully and usually others are thinking it too, but unwilling to say anything. Good for you for speaking up, Rachel.
I would like to think I have ‘chutzpah’! I am also what is termed ‘polite’, when chutzpah would be unwise. However, I love to speak my mind – without hurting others, of course. It helps when with those of like mind who enjoy the ‘straight forward’ approach. It can really hurt the brain when one has to chase down truth.
And, in many instances, a little ‘truth’ can be so unravelling when that elephant starts to smell…
It’s surprising how easily people can ignore the smell. It must take a lot of work.
“Get up and go” and “having the courage of your convictions” = Chutzpah to me…no negative connotations, unless of course the one casting aspertions is a wee bit jealous of those who speak their mind!”.
Fascinating post, Rachel. Languages can be powerful and confounding at the same time. ps. Lovely picture of you and the puppies!
I had no idea that the word could mean so many things. I have only ever heard it as a positive, kind of speaking truth to power. I am glad you have it in the best sense of the word.
As someone who was born and raised in NYC, I am familiar with many Yiddish phrases. 🙂
The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just finished reading this book and this post reminds me of it. How words can and DO have different meanings. I always thought of chutzpah as something that someone being outspoken has, which not everyone likes. I think of it as a compliment. The Dictionary of Lost Words is fiction, but there is actual history of the Oxford Dictionary in the background. I didn’t realize how long it took to get from A to Z and I had NO idea of the process. I thought it was an interesting book – especially if you like words.
I can relate to what you’re saying. And I think I also say the uncomfortable things that others aren’t willing to. For example, where I work. I often think we treat our patients like babies at the expense of their own safety. Normally I don’t, unless the doctors don’t let me do my job; and then I feel like there’s nothing I can do. They’ve belittled my position and what I’m trying to do for the patient. That’s just the most recent example I could think of.
That’s awful. I’m so sorry you’re not getting the support you deserve.
I am glad to hear of the health of Yiddish, it has enriched so many languages! I see you can learn not on Duolingo. I might just try it!
Learn it! Finger slip again.
It’s really fun!
“I’d like to think that if I do have chutzpah, it’s the good kind and not the sociopathic kind, but most of the time I feel like I don’t have enough chutzpah, or self-confidence, or whatever it takes to really make a mark in the world, and make change. It takes so much energy to speak up in a discussion, and argue against the speaker’s certainty, only to find out later that mine was actually the majority opinion in the room but no one else felt free to say anything. I’d rather not have to fight at all, honestly, but that doesn’t seem to be an option. So, maybe next time I have to be chutzpahdik and speak an impolite truth, someone else will stand up and be chutzpahdik with me. God, that would be so much better.”
Great closing. I relate to this.
I moved to Joburg in ‘92 (big Jewish population) and loads of people told me I had chutzpah – after I learned what it meant I took it as a compliment and you should too – brave, a passion to get things done rgardless of obstacles, feisty, unafraid.
This shiksa (that’s one of the other words I learnt) reckons having chutzpah can only be a good thing – now go get em tiger 😊
Way to go! You do indeed have the good chutzpah! I’m a bit like that myself. If I know that something is stupid or wrong – I expect everyone else to know that too, because I know the limits of my intelligence. If I can understand something – like a stinking elephant in the room – I expect everyone else to understand it too. So keep your chutzpah and keep smiling. There is only one of you and God did a great job when He created you.
Thank you so much!