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 reached the height of its form in 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.

Outside of academic texts devoted the philosophical and esoteric ideas underpinning the Western world, nous is almost never encountered, at least outside of Britain.  Within Britain, the word’s tenuously maintained existence as part of public discourse is almost entirely devoted to the world of football commentary.  Even in this context however, the word is not frequently used.  It is reserved for players with an almost preternatural feel for the game (think Pele or Leo Messi) or, on any given Saturday, a less gifted player who has nevertheless performed a sufficiently astounding feat.  The word used in this sense is often combined with another aspect, such that a player can be said to be possessed of ‘tactial nous’, etc.

The meaning implied here is that the player being described is inspired (literally, animated or filled with a feeling or purpose) by some supernatural or divine sense or understanding that allows him to make just the right move at the right time or to accomplish a feat that another player who lacks the same connection to ‘divine’ sources of inspiration would find impossible.

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 at a point when its main usage relates to popular athletics events.

What is fascinating about the word is that some of its religious accretions remain in its modern usage.  For instance, it is not used to describe a player who simply has a good feel for the game but goes beyond this implies that there is a touch of otherworldliness, of divinity at work within the player being described.

While this conflation of the sacred and profane seems somewhat surprising at first, it should not be.  Nous appears to be just one of many words which follow this same pattern.  Words which arose during a time in which the world itself was viewed as being ensouled and alive with sacred energy are, now that this philosophical viewpoint has disappeared from popular discourse, left as supposedly simple descriptive terms.  However, these modern meanings, though pale outward reflections of their original ones, deceptively lend a vestigial sacrality and otherwordliness to profane objects of their modern usage.

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