On a Sunday afternoon many years ago in Iowa City, I was trying desperately to charm the patoopies off my then-boyfriend’s parents. We were all riding in his parents’ car: his dad was driving, Mom sat in front seat, Mr. Dreamboat and I were in the back. I did fine the majority of the trip, but then I said something cringe-inducingly dumb and I have been paying for it ever since!
The fellow I was dating at the time was a chef — a good one. He taught me how to eat. When I got the job at the cafe where he chef’ed, I knew nothing about food beyond Mom’s spaghetti and my version of it.* The Chef showed me the world of fresh food beautifully prepared and it changed my life because my life began to taste better and I learned how to cook the stuff myself. Because if it didn’t work out, you know, with me and him, I had better know how to make my own tarte tatin. (It didn’t, and I do.)
So we’re in the folks’ Beemer and Chef’s lovely, intelligent, handsome mother asks me this or that question about this or that thing. I have the occasion to use a word that I liked — liked, past tense: chutzpah. Great word. Yiddish. Means “shameless audacity, impudence.” Like, “He had the chutzpah to run for class president after pulling that stunt in gym class.” I knew how to use the word. But I didn’t know that chutzpah was pronounced “HOOTZ-pah” and ideally, one should do that Yiddish glottal cough thing with the “H” sound. I didn’t know any of that. Your hapless heroine pronounced it, “CHUTT-spa.” Hard “CHUTT.” Spa.
These people were Jewish. By the way.
Chef’s mother made this sound that was half-gasp, half-snort and turned back to look at me with kindness but great, great mirth. “Honey, you pronounce it ‘HOOTZ-pah.” I cocked my head to the side.
“Ha. Ah. I see. Well, you know, then, ha. Ha, then. It’s… She had HOOTZ-pah. For the thing. Are we close? I think we’re close.”
Over a decade! Over a decade since I said “CHUTT-spa” in a car with three Jewish people all with generous Yiddish vocabularies and I still can’t forget it. I thought about it today because I saw the word in an article and that’s a pain because the chutzpah memory starts a machine in my head that spits out all the other times I’ve mispronounced words in mixed company. I was at a fancy lunch meeting once — one example — and ordered the endive salad. I said, “I’ll have the EN-dive salad, please.” The waitress repeated back, “The ahhn-DEEVE salad?” and I wanted to stick my head under the tablecloth.
Turns out you can say “ahn-DEEVE” or “EN-dive.” Both are okay. But there’s just one chutzpah.
*Note: I love my mother’s spaghetti very, very much — but she’s the first to admit she’s not a whiz in the kitchen. She has had to survive in this world with about 10,000 other talents. She’ll be okay.