Yesterday morning, a friend and subscriber to this column (who are one and the same person—a curious expression, no?) called my attention to eunoia. Hardly a common term, eunoia is said to be the shortest word in English that contains a, e, i, o, and u, the five standard vowel letters; we have to say standard vowel letters because y can also function as a vowel, as it does for example in English very and Spanish y itself. There’s no doubt that eunoia pulls off the feat of getting a single consonant to carry the weight of five different vowel letters, but there is doubt that eunoia is really an English word: even the mighty Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t include it.

And what is eunoia supposed to mean if it does exist? It is made up of two Greek components, the first being eu ‘good,’ as in the eufemismo/euphemism that is a good way of saying something bad or unpleasant. The second component is Greek nous or noos, which meant ‘mind.’ As a result, Wikipedia claims that eunoia is ‘a rarely used medical term referring to a state of normal mental health.’ Wikipedia also says: “In rhetoric, eunoia is the goodwill a speaker cultivates between himself and his audience, a condition of receptivity. In book eight of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the term to refer to the kind and benevolent feelings of goodwill a spouse has which form the basis for the ethical foundation of human life.”

It seems safe to say that eunoia existed in Greek but isn’t truly an English or Spanish word. The curiosity of its spelling has given it some celebrity, especially since a Canadian named Christian Bök wrote a bök, i.e. book, in which every word in the first chapter contains only the vowel letter a, every word in the second chapter the vowel letter e, and so on. Naturally enough, he titled his book Eunoia. Published in 2001 by Coach House Press, it became something of a phenomenon in the world of books.

Two indisputably real words are related to eunoia. The more common is paranoia, which is identical in Spanish and English. Greek para conveys the notions ‘alongside, beyond,’ so Greek paranous meant ‘having gone out of one’s mind,’ and paranoia was the corresponding abstract noun. The philosopher Emmanuel Kant coined the other related term. He took nous ‘mind’ and added the ending of the unrelated phenomenon to create noumenon. In contrast to a fenómeno/phenomenon, which the senses can detect, a noúmeno/noumenon is ‘a thing unto itself, conceivable by the mind but not directly perceivable by the senses.’

To my mind, of eunoia, paranoia, and noumenon, eunoia is the most fenomenal/phenomenal.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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