There is a fine line between boldness and rashness. What can be seen as a courageous or defiant act can quickly be seen as downright foolish. A mountaineer summiting Everest is courageous; a mountaineer summiting Everest with a storm quickly approaching is foolhardy.
The Everest example embodies sheer physicality. Oftentimes courage—or foolishness—manifests in a social context. Tactfully calling attention to a superior’s mistakes takes pluck; smugly calling out those mistakes in a weekly meeting smacks of raw insolence.
Below are a few words that apply to such situations. The words run the gamut from cheeky to downright impudent.
President of the United States Barack Obama, before rising to this position of eminence, wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope. It was an interesting adjective to choose, since audacity can mean good old-fashioned boldness in the face of risk or adversity, or it can describe disrespectful behavior. In its GRE incarnation, audacity can take on either definition.
The ‘front’ in effrontery originally came from the Latin frontus, which meant, more or less, the ability to blush. Today, effrontery is anything but blushing. It connotes a sense of shameless audacity, in which the person exhibiting effrontery is going out of their way to defy social conventions and demean someone worthy of respect. In the movie Amadeus, Mozart, upon hearing the Emperor tell him that his music was missing a few notes, responded with his characteristic effrontery, “Which ones did you have in mind?”
Temerity is the perfect word to describe our mountaineer in the opening paragraphs of this post. Well aware of the dangers summit Mt. Everest in a lightning storm, he still decides to head for the top (such decisions, if recent Everest ascents are any guide, rarely end well). Thus temerity is not just old-fashioned boldness. Rather, it describes a person who disregards clear and substantial risks, when deciding to act boldly. A good synonym—at least adjective wise—would be foolhardy.
Speaking of adjectives, the only adjective form of temerity, at least the only one that leaps to mind, is temerarious. However, this word is archaic, as well as a serious tongue twister. You’d be far more likely to find it in the verses of Milton than on the GRE.
This versatile word comes from deep within our bodies. At an anatomical level, it can describe the contents of the gall bladder (I won’t elaborate it). At the GRE level, this word has two distinct definitions. When somebody says that so-and-so had the gall of doing something, they are saying that the person had the cheek or the nerve to do something. In this sense, the word is a synonym with audacity and impudence.
Gall is also a verb meaning to annoy. As in, he didn’t say anything when others teased him, though it galled him.
Finally, the most fun word of the bunch, chutzpah (typically pronounced with the ‘c’ silent) comes from Yiddish. It is used informally, but still pops up in serious articles (in May, which isn’t even over yet, the nytimes.com site already has seven uses of the word). Chutzpah is very similar to gall and effrontery, as in: After cutting in front of me in line, he had the chutzpah to ask me for a dollar.