Word of the Week: Chutzpah

SAY chutzpah and you’d think of Alibaba and Jack Ma. That seems to be how The Wall Street Journal has characterized one of the world’s most successful and well-to-do entrepreneurs: The Chutzpah of Jack Ma, so goes the headline of a book review of Duncan Clark’s newly released Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built.

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The reviewer, Tom Nagorski, assigns other adjectives to Ma: “ambitious,” “clever,” “pretentious,” but no word seems to speak of Ma better than the boldness of chutzpah:

chutzpah |ˈhʊtspə, ˈxʊtspə| (also chutzpa or hutzpah or hutzpa) (n) informal
shameless audacity; impudence.

But of course. After all, here’s a man, who, in his earliest entrepreneurial years, spoke of creating a venture that had “to be number one in the world.” Over the next 15 years, he would do just that: build new businesses that seemed fanciful at first, but would eventually send competitors “kicking themselves and once-skeptical investors ruing missed opportunities.”

Oxford’s etymological notes show this word as a late 19th century Yiddish word, derived from Aramaic—the language that Jesus was known to have spoken.

Chutzpah first appeared to me in a New York Times article on a chill-out Sunday afternoon way back in 1998 when I was living in Long Island working with Computer Associates. I can’t remember the article in which it made its appearance, but I do recall learning from a Jewish colleague the day after, that it’s not pronounced the way it looks.

In other words, not CHUTS-pah or CHOOTS-pah, but HOOTS-puh—that’s a short, clipped vowel like the one in soot.

Yet another Yiddish word that behaves in the same way as chutzpah—with ch pronounced as h—is the Jewish bread:

challah |ˈhɑlə|(n)
a loaf of white leavened bread, typically plaited in form, traditionally baked to celebrate the Jewish sabbath.

Over the six years living in New York from 1997 to 2003, I’ve accumulated a modest vocabulary of Yiddish words, including two not very polite words, which I’m not going share, but I’m proud to report that I know more than twenty, of which these should be interesting revelations:

maven, mensch, nosh, schmaltzy, schmooze (also shmooze)

That’s right, they’re Yiddish!


I invite you to write to me at  viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.

  • Our previous “Word of the Week”: Underbelly | Next up: Schadenfreude
  • If you like our “Word of the Week” posts, you might also enjoy our “How to Pronounce It” series.

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