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What is Chutzpah?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Chutzpah is a Hebrew term with layers of meaning. Pronunciation of the word is varied, although typically, the C is silent and the word may be pronounced “hutspah” or “huspa” with a short u sound. The word in Hebrew from which the modern spelling is derived is huspa and in Hebrew, it would be defined as arrogance, impertinence, or insolence. Similar words in Hebrew include katsuf and katsufah, which translate as "impudent man" or "woman," according to the ending sound.

In Yiddish, chutzpah is not always negatively viewed, and it in fact may be a positive quality. If it is not exactly positive, people may have ambivalent feelings about displays of this characteristic. On the one hand, they may look at it as rude or impertinent, but on the other, they also may admire the bravery to be impertinent under certain circumstances. Related terms in other languages include cojones from Spanish, and hubris from Ancient Greek.

In other words, the word can be defined as guts, the ability to say or act in ways that may be negatively perceived and require a certain amount of bravery. Challenging an elder or a teacher might be considered an act of chutzpah, but if a person can prove his point, it might be an admirable thing to do, even if he generally would respect such a person. In negative sense, this quality can be more perceived as thumbing one's nose at convention, simply because a person can. A person in power might verbally attack people lower on the socioeconomic strata, for example, representing a more negative form.

Generally though, impudence tends to be directed toward people in positions of authority. It therefore takes some nerve and daring to challenge someone who has more authority in a community. A student in a Jewish school who verbally attacks a rabbi on his interpretation of the Torah is displaying extraordinary chutzpah. Whether or not the student would be admired for such an assault really depends upon the person on the receiving end. They may grudgingly admire the person's bravery, or they may dismiss it as simply arrogant and not respectful.

In Chaim Potok’s book Davita’s Harp, one of the key questions of the novel is the place of the woman in the Jewish religion. The young heroine of the novel decides to say Kaddish for her deceased father, a ritual prayer said at every Sabbath meeting for a year’s time. This is looked upon by others in her community as chutzpah. Women in Davita’s synagogue, and in the 1930s-1940s when the novel is set, did not normally say this prayer.

As the year progresses, Davita’s determination to recite Kaddish begins to be met with admiration instead of consternation. Women in the temple join her in the prayer. This is typical of the American view of this quality: Davita’s act earns her blame and then praise. What is first viewed as disrespectful eventually earns her grudging respect for acting from the impulse of her heart and braving convention to do so.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon933035 — On Feb 14, 2014

When given a promotion my manager told me I had a lot of chutzpah. I took it positively. However, he did get me out of his group. Have I been wrong all these years?

By discographer — On Jan 25, 2013

Whether chutzpah's definition is negative or positive depends on the situation and the way it is used. It can be both.

By ddljohn — On Jan 24, 2013

@feruze-- I don't think about chutzpah as negatively as you. My grandmother uses this word a lot and I suppose it's more negative than positive but in a playful way. If I were to translate it, I would say "gutsy."

I'll give you an example. Let's say you came across a beggar and decided to treat him to lunch. You took him to a restaurant, went to the restroom, and when you came back, you saw that he invited all his beggar friends to eat on your bill. I would say that that beggar has a lot of chutzpah, he has a lot of nerve, a lot of gut.

By bear78 — On Jan 24, 2013

I personally don't think that someone who is full of chutzpah can be admired. Chutzpah is arrogance and I don't think there is anything admirable about arrogance. Religion warns us against arrogance as an evil.

Being courageous, honest or strong-minded is different. Someone who is chutzpah is rude, even shameless, by my definition, not admirable.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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