Shnook & Shnook

QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM, LATIN is the lifeblood of the law (and what allows otherwise doltish lawyers to sound learned in a courtroom). But today's linguistically lucid litigator may need another lexicon to impress. And most any shnook knows at least a little. it's Yiddish and, according to an article, "Lawsuit, Shmawsuit," in the December issue of the august Yale Law Journal, lawyers' bookshelves ought to make way for Leo Rosten.

The authors disclose that the word "chutzpah" has appeared in 112 judicial decisions since the republic was founded. All but 11 have been filed since 1980. ("Unmitigated gall" appears but 10 times.) "It could be that the actual amount of chutzpah in the legal system has increased, but I doubt it," says Alex Kozinski, one of the coauthors and in his spare time a federal appeals judge in Pasadena, Calif. Chutzpah first appeared in juridical print in 1972, when a Georgia court described the crime of breaking into a sheriff's office to steal guns.

Other Yiddish words don't do quite as well. Variations on "kibitz" show up in 10 cases, "maven" in four, "klutz" in three and "schlemiel" in five (two of which refer to Woody Allen). "Schmooze" is used only once--in another Georgia case, which mangled the spelling into "schmoose," presumably a new hair gel. "Schtick," too, gets but one mention--in a recent opinion by the slightly meshugge Kozinski. The article devotes its fullest discussion to "schmuck," which it calls the word "that must be on every reader's mind." "Schmuck" remarkably appears 59 times as the name of a litigant, including one case before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Mr. Schmuck was a used car dealer.) "Putz" also is a last name for some other poor schmucks. There's even People v. Arno, a 1979 California case in which the first letters of each sentence in a footnote spell out "schmuck," in apparent reference to the dissent, which takes considerable umbrage at the joke.

This disquisition on Yiddish is the latest Kozinski frolic. (This is the fellow who reviews Nintendo video games for The Wall Street Journal and has been known to sing on the lecture circuit.) But as a lower-court judge, there's a limit to the mishegaas he can wreak. His coauthor might be more dangerous. Eugene Volokh, who used to clerk for Kozinski, now works for justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Oy.