Thursday, February 18, 2016

Secret Origins: Zero

I finished the letters, so I might as well do numbers, right? And what’s the best number to do the history of than the one that doesn’t exist?

As a concept, zero is kind of interesting. It’s the absence of everything. While civilization had no trouble making up numbers for things we could count, what about something that’s, well, nothing?

As a word, zero showed up in the early seventeenth century. Now, you might be thinking “Then what did we call zero before that? We had to have something for it!” And we did. Cipher. Seriously. The story behind that can actually be explained by the word zero’s history. It comes from either the modern French zero or the Italian zero (bet you can’t guess what those words mean). Before that, it was the Medieval Latin zephirum, which comes from the Arabic sifr, cipher, which in turn is taken from the Sanskrit sunya-m, empty place or naught. Both zero and cipher come from the same place, but the French and Italians jazzed it up and we just had to use it, I guess.

The 0 symbol is a bit more complicated. Now, the alphabet we use is Latin, but their number system is nothing like ours. We use 0, 1, 2 etc. They use Roman numerals, which I’m sure you’ve come across. It means they didn’t need to use a 0. Their symbol for 2000 is just M. No 0’s required.

The Sumerians were the first to use a counting system to keep track of goods, and that idea was passed on to the Babylonians in 2000 BCE. They used what’s called a positional system, where the place the symbol was located indicated the value—159 means one hundred, five tens, and nine singles. And since they used base 10—i.e. they’d go from 0 to 9 and then from 10 to 19, 100 to 109, and so on—and they needed something to indicate when a number was 10 and when it was 10000.

The invention of zero as a concept is attributed to India, although the Mayans also came up with their own version of zero. But if you go look at ancient Indian scripts, you see a tiny little o symbol, the ancestor of 0. It got a bit bigger, but didn’t really change much from there. It just had to wait for the idea of zero to spread, and that’s why we have 0.



  1. And now I've got a headache and zero tylenol!

  2. I never thought about the Roman numerals not having zeroes…

  3. It's interesting to think that there was a time when there wasn't a term for the absence of something. I had thought that the concept of zero came from Arabic, but I guess it wasn't originally theirs.

  4. Fascinating! Love this origins post.
    Ah, it brings back the days of teaching fourth and fifth grade math. Zero is NOT nothing!

  5. This is the most complete account of the origin of zero I've ever seen.


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