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We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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A Brief History of Nous

Did you know that Sir Alex Ferguson still doubts his tactical nous? The headline leaves no room for doubt: “Sir Alex Ferguson: I still doubt my tactical nous”. I find this sad. Sir Alex would seem to have it all: a long record of championships, a range of expensive outerwear, a ruddy Glaswegian complexion, a knighthood—but if you can’t trust in your own nous, what is it all worth, really?

On the other hand, if you have your nous, you have everything. It’s probably obvious to all that “Jose Mourinho’s tactical nous shows his Nietzschean qualities”, but it helps to have it stated in the pages of the Times. The author of that article slyly leaves unmentioned the decisive point that Nietzsche was a classical philologist by training, and early in his career worked on a book called Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Late in that work Nietzsche speculates on the creation of the world. What created the world? Why, a vast nous. And how does the nous think of its creation? Why, as a game, a children’s game, a game of kicking a ball perhaps. Astonishing that so young a thinker would come so close to the ultimate truth of things—and yet he abandoned his book, leaving it unfinished. Though he could not have known it, the time was not yet ripe: association football had defined itself but a decade earlier, and nearly a century would pass before the birth of Mourinho. Nevertheless, we must give Nietzsche credit for being the first to intuit the deep structure that links soccer and nous.

This can be of little consolation to Arsène Wenger, whose “lack of tactical nous” is well-known, or so my Google searches indicate, and seems to infect his team, which, wise analysts say, is often nousless, or anyway nous-impaired.

I have also discovered that while tactical nous is much discussed, little is said about strategic nous. (The only sport-related reference to it I can find attributes that quality to Lance Armstrong.) It seems to me that, should one be so fortunate as to possess nous, one would want to use it in developing one’s overall strategy as well as one’s particular tactics. But I know little about such things, being an American to whom such terminology is utterly foreign. The Oxford English Dictionary indeed confirms that my people aren’t in the nous business: in the sense that I have been using the word, it is “colloq. (chiefly Brit.)” and means “common sense, practical intelligence, ‘gumption’.” Puzzling, since “common sense” and “gumption” mean very different things, and one might say that Arsène Wenger lacks one without denying him the other . . . but who am I to challenge the OED?

I like the examples the OED gives: One G. Jackson, in his Diaries & Lett. (1819), writes, “They would not send Oakeley. He has no nouse.” Alas, poor Oakeley! F. A. Kemble, in his Rec. Later Life (1847), opines, “I think his doing so exhibits considerable nous in a brute,” which surely must be an anticipatory reference to Gennaro Gattuso. Someone wrote in the London Evening Standard in 1959, “He has enough political nous not to wish to carry the can for people like Aneurin Bevan.” Replace “Aneurin Bevan” with “Sam Allardyce” and all sorts of possibilities suggest themselves.

I have lived without this word too long. Here in America we lack Bovril, barley water, Marmite, nous. One of those deficiencies I shall remedy.

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A Brief History of Nous

by Alan Jacobs · March 17, 2011

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