The Creative Exploration of Language


Nous is a word with a long and varied history.  Ultimately, it comes from Ancient Greek, where it meant something like “mind” or “intelligence.”  While the original word most likely carried with it a fairly mundane connotation of “common sense,” the word and the concepts surrounding it evolved over time.  This evolution led to nous being heavily linked with the traditions of Hermetism (a philosophy developed in Greco-Egyptian Alexandria during the first centuries AD) and Hermeticism (a Neoplatonic philosophical current common during the Renaissance) to refer to the original intelligence, believed to be the first thing to emerge from the void when the world was created.  In Platonic terms, nous creates the forms upon which the world is based and is, in other words, a higher form of intelligence that creates a bridge between man and the unknowable.

From its roots in Ancient Greek as “common sense'” through the philosophical and religious accretions of its Alexandrian and Renaissance phases, where it was quite clearly connected to concept of divinity, we have arrived in modern times at a point when its main usage relates to athletics.

Outside of academic texts devoted to philosophical and esoteric ideas, nous is almost never encountered, at least outside of Britain.  Within Britain, the word’s tenuous existence is almost entirely confined to the world of football commentary.  Even in this context however, it is not frequently used, being reserved for descriptions of players with an instinctive, intuitive feel for the game.  In this usage nous is often combined with a particular aspect of the sport, such that a player can be said to be possessed of “tactical nous,” or a coach, such as Zinedine Zidane, can be said to lack “coaching nous.”

The meaning implied here is that the person being described is inspired (literally, animated or filled with a feeling or purpose) by some supernatural or divine understanding that allows them to make just the right move at the right time.  Further, the implication is that this intuitive knowledge is not possessed by other players who lack the same connection to “divine” sources of inspiration.

What is fascinating about nous is how its usage has toggled back and forth between the sacred and the mundane over the centuries, with its current status, at least in English, being somewhere in the middle.  By this I mean that the current usage of nous, mostly limited to the world of football, carries with it the hint of its earlier connection to divine inspiration.  While I don’t believe that football commentators are explicitly trying to get this meaning across, I do think there is a subconscious recognition of the fact that nous has deeper roots.  Otherwise, why not just say “intuition”?

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