The Amazing Rise of Chutzpah, in 1 Chart (Actually, in 2)

Did Fiddler on the Roof make chutzpah popular? Law databases—and Google—give us a clue.
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Check out the graph below. It comes, with complementary tongue and cheek, from University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner

And what a trend it shows! Fiddler on the Roof appears in 1971, and, immediately, a U.S. judicial opinion mentions chutzpah. The chart tells a tidy story about how change in language happens: All that a word needs to catch on is for a single, monumental work to use it in a memorable way.

There’s only one problem: As far as I can tell, Fiddler on the Roof never uses the word chutzpah.

Chutzpah, for the uninitiated, is the Yiddish word for audacity, for guts. It usually has a negative connotation. In Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten gives the classic definition: “Chutzpah is that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”

Maybe Fiddler didn’t cause the rise. So why, then, does chutzpah appear in the early 1970s and keep rising? I consulted a larger and broader database of English language usage, Google Books:

It, too, shows escalating usage, but the trend it depicts starts about a decade before the release of Fiddler.

It seems the rise of chutzpah might be attributed to much broader trends—the assimilation and popularization of Jewish culture—than on a single work.

Upon his death in 1997, The New York Times called Rosten’s manual “the de facto standard reference work on [Yiddish].” The author of the Times obituary was looking back at a book that helped make the language popular again, that connected an assimilated generation to its forebears—a book that had been published just as the rising use of chutzpah began in 1968. As William Deresiewicz writes in The Atlantic’s new issue, Fiddler on the Roof helped do the same.

So perhaps there’s another, related explanation for Posner’s graph: The federal judiciary might just be a jolt more Jewish now. By way of illustrating anecdote: In the mid-1960s, Arthur Goldberg was said to hold what was called “the Jewish seat” on the Supreme Court. Today, there are three Jewish justices.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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