Thursday, August 19, 2010

Linguistic CHUTZPAH

Given how much I relish not only the concept of chutzpah but also the linguistic foundations of the word itself, one can understand the frisson I experience at the prospect of a Chutzpah of the Week award presented on linguistic grounds. The recipient is a Professor of English from New York named Lynne Rosenthal, who we may assume carries much of the chutzpah-laden context that makes New York City what it is. The circumstances that qualify Rosenthal for the award were summarized by Jon Kelly for BBC News Magazine in a report which appeared on the BBC News Web site this morning:

English professor Lynne Rosenthal has become a cause celebre after she was thrown out of a New York branch of Starbucks cafe by police for clashing with staff over the wording of her bagel order.

The academic had wanted a plain, toasted multi-grain bagel but said she became infuriated when the server insisted she use the phrase "without butter and cheese".

According to Prof Rosenthal, the exchange proceeded thus: "I yelled, 'I want my multi-grain bagel.'

"The barista said, 'You're not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese.'"

It seems a bafflingly trivial incident for both parties to get exercised over, and the fact that none of Starbucks' staple product was involved in the contentious order makes one wonder what would have happened had Prof Rosenthal had the temerity to ask for a small white coffee.

Standing up to Starbucks is, itself, an act of chutzpah. Challenging their fascist (as George Orwell would have put it) warping of the English language (for no reason other that furthering the dominance of their own brand) is the leaven that makes the dough rise; and, to continue that metaphor, basing the challenge on a product that has nothing to do with coffee itself adds the icing to the cake. (In this context it may have been better to say "sprinkles the sesame seeds on top of the bagel;" but I decided to opt for the more familiar metaphor.)

In fairness I have to say that on my (relatively seldom) encounters with Starbucks, I have made it a point to use my own plain-speaking nouns and adjectives. I have never had to deal with any reaction from the server (word chosen to emphasize my usage choices) other than a faint smile that could be either disparaging or sympathetic; but this episode took place in New York City, where, for example, you expect to be yelled at when you try to get your bagel with cream cheese at Zabar's, just because that is part of the culture of the establishment. Thus, while Kelly quoted an "official" statement from Starbucks that there "are no rules and customers have always been able to ask for drinks any way they want," one can easily imagine that this statement was issued by some drone with absolutely no experience of the high intensity of Manhattan life during working hours. In true New York style this was a confrontation of two immovable forces, and Rosenthal deserves her Chutzpah of the Week award for her own immovability.

No comments: