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Nous

Pronounced /naʊs/Help with pronunciation

Do not fear that we have strayed into French. This is a good English language word, though mainly of the British variety. To us Brits, our nous is our common sense or practical intelligence. Though these days it is principally a stalwart of the sports pages, it is also found elsewhere:

A lengthy period of profound inaction by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a seeming lack of political nous in Obama’s White House is resulting in robotic government.

Daily Mail, 2 Mar. 2013.

Perhaps because of its wide popularity and the way that it’s said (as “nowse”), it feels like a native word, one that evokes hard-headed practical north-country people. But it’s actually classical Greek, meaning mind, intelligence, or intuitive apprehension. One ancient philosopher, Anaxagoras, held that nous was the universe’s controlling principle that brought all material things into being. The English philosopher and theologian Ralph Cudworth argued in his True Intellectual System of the Universe in 1678 that there was a nous or intellect that was the architectural framer of the whole world.

English adopted it in the general Greek sense, though it was taken up by academic wits of Cudworth’s time and the following decades as a grandiose way to refer to the mind, pointing the joke by spelling it in Greek letters. From there it expanded into general usage and by the nineteenth century it had become an established and useful part of everyday British vocabulary.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Mar. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 30 March 2013.