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Sunday, October 26, 2003

Chutzpah, legally speaking . . .

A man goes to a lawyer and asks:
"How much do you charge for legal advice?"

"A thousand dollars for three questions."

"Wow! Isn’t that kind of expensive?"

"Yes, it is. What’s your third question?"
"Lawsuit, Shawsuit" - originally published in the Yale Law Journal
Searching through the LEXIS legal opinions database reveals that "chutzpah" (sometimes also spelled "chutzpa," "hutzpah," or "hutzpa") has appeared in 231 reported court decisions. Curiously, all but eleven of them have been filed since 1980. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that during the last 21 years there has been a dramatic increase in the actual amount of chutzpah in the United States--or at least in the U.S. legal system. This explanation seems possible, but unlikely.

The more likely explanation is that Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot. As recently as 1970, a federal court not only felt the need to define "bagels"; it misdefined them, calling them "hard rolls shaped like doughnuts." All right-thinking people know good bagels are rather soft. (Day-old bagels are rather hard, but right-thinking people do not eat day-olds, even when they are only 10 cents each.) We’ve come a long way since then.

The first reported use of "chutzpah" was in 1972, in an opinion of the Georgia Court of Appeals. We’re happy to say it was quite apt: breaking into a sheriff’s office to steal guns qualifies as chutzpah in our book. The four times "chutzpah" was used in published opinions in 1973, the courts didn’t even bother to give a definition. And, as we said, it’s been used over two hundred times since 1980. During the same period, the word "temerity" (a woefully inadequate substitute) was used only about two hundred sixty times, and "unmitigated gall" a mere thirteen.
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