Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Language of Confusion: Nothing

I don’t think the etymology of “nothing” is much of a mystery. It’s no + thing. Not exactly a mind twister. But I thought it would be amusing to look into all the different ways we have to say “nothing”. Nil, zip, zero, zilch (z’s are popular, I guess).

It comes from Old English, where it was naþing (that þ is called a thorn; it’s from back when we had a separate letter for the “th” sound) or naðinc(again, the ð is an unused letter, this one called eth). Both words are roughly the same and are a combination of nanand þing—basically, none and thing. And it’s interesting to note that none itself is another word combination, this time of no and one, making nothing short for “not one thing”. I also think it’s cool that while nothing has been around since the early thirteenth century, we only started using it as an adjective (i.e. “nothing like”) in 1961. Words! They’re still changing!

While nothing came from Germanic roots, nil comes from the ubiquitous Latin, where it does indeed mean nothing. The classical Latin nihilor nihilum is actually another combination, this one of ne (not) and hilum (small thing). Not a small thing—not anything at all.

We’re getting into slang here. Zip has a few other meanings, but as a synonym for nothing it first appeared in 1900 asstudent slang for a grade of zero. whatever students who came up with it chose zip is unknown. If I had to guess, I would assume it’s because it for some reason annoyed their parents.

It showed up in 1966 and like most recent words, no one thought to write down where it came from. It’s apparently an actual German/Slavic name, but as to why it means nothing…no idea.

In Old English, another word for nothingwas nawiht. It’s a combination of na—no—and wiht—thing or being. Wiht has kind of fallen by the wayside these days, but you can see its vestiges in the word wight.

Kind of an interesting one since the nothing/zero meaning of it comes from naught, but it’s also a word in its own right(where it actually comes from the previously introduced wiht). The nothing meaning of the word is actually an accident, what’s known as “metanalysis”. Basically, it’s when we say “a nword” and change it to “an word”. English has done this more than once, changing “a napron” to “an apron” and “a nadder” to “an adder”. It also happens in reverse sometimes, too. For example, “a newt” was original “an ewt”.

See? Wasn’t this fun? : )

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Love it. Love words! Thanks for the lesson. :)

  2. uncle's nickname is Zip...

  3. I think if I ever want to write an enigmatic character name... I'll go with naoinc...


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