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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: nous

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun’s John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


I puzzled a reader earlier today in a post on my start as a newspaper copy editor, writing that The Cincinnati Enquirer took me on “for a three-week tryout to determine whether I had the nous.”


During the sixteenth century English writers lifted nous (rhymes with “noose”) from classical Greek, where Plato and that lot used it to mean “mind,” “intellect,” and “intelligence.”

But English handles its borrowings freely, and by the eighteenth century nous came to indicate “common sense,” “practical intelligence,” or “gumption,” the OED records. The OED offers this citation from G. Duncan’s Talulla Rising(2012): “Madeline, with nous enough not to kill on her own doorstep, had been in the area.”

 I believe I encountered the word in that sense for the first time when John Thaw uttered it in one of the Inspector Morse episodes, and this week’s example shows that it has begun to creep into American usage.

Example: From The Verge, February 25, 2017: “LG’s G6 looks promising, but the Korean company’s another repeat offender when it comes to building hype with its engineering nous and then letting people down with the user experience.”

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