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From a newspaper photograph of a masked bank robber and killer, a Little Rock woman identified her son to police. A blogger took note:

“Kudos to the mother who had the intestinal fortitude to make the call to the police about the acts of her own son. That took chutzpah!”

Did it? It took courage, it took respect for the law, it took selflessness. Chutzpah is something else.

Chutzpah is one of the most-used of the many words that came into English from Yiddish. As Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage says, it is “a curious word, having both positive and negative connotations in American English. On the one hand, some consider it unfavorable:

‘Alan Dershowitz, the white knight of religious correctness, should have been a tad more judicious in his choice of a title for his book Chutzpah. Leo Rosten’s book Hooray for Yiddish! defines chutzpah as “ultra-brazenness, shamelessness, hard to believe effrontery, presumption or gall” — traits that many Jews and Gentiles would hardly classify as desirable.’

“On the other hand — and perhaps this says something about American culture — many consider chutzpah something desirable. [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary] defines it first as ‘supreme self-confidence’ but then unnerves us with ‘nerve, gall.’ The word sits uneasily on the fence that divides praise and scorn.”

Success With Words says that chutzpah means “extreme gall, breath-taking effrontery,” and quotes an item from Time magazine:

“ … demonstrating that he is a con man with unsurpassed chutzpah. Asked if he swindled an uncle out of $50,000, Weinberg quickly denied it. ‘It was a cousin.’ ”

Those old enough to remember the days before television — I think there are four of us left — know that television introduced chutzpah to Middle America. Jewish comedians on the Ed Sullivan Show and similar venues would tell jokes involving chutzpah, then explain the word to their mostly Gentile audience. The explanation I remember best is “Chutzpah is when a man kills his parents and then asks the judge for mercy on the ground that he’s an orphan.”

Variant spellings include chutzpa, hutzpah and hutzpa.

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