Names for the number 0 in English
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There are many names for the number 0 in English and related concepts, and there are concomitant names for the decades whose tens column contains the number 0. The names for the number 0 include "zero", "cipher", "null", "naught", "nought", "love", "duck", "nil", "zilch", "zip", (the letter) "o" (often spelled "oh"), "aught", and "ought". There are various subtleties of usage amongst them all.
Some usage of these terms is driven by a desire to maintain an explicit distinction between digit zero and letter O, which, because they are both usually represented graphically in English orthography (and indeed most orthographies using Latin script and Arabic numerals) with a simple circle or oval, have a centuries-long history of being frequently conflated. Thus some of the terms discussed below are the phonetic analog of the graphical convention of slashed zero—that is, both are an effort to keep digit zero and letter O duly differentiated.
"Zero" and "cipher"
"Zero" and "cipher" are both names for the number 0, but the use of "cipher" for the number is rare and only literary in English today. They are doublets, which means they have entered the language through different routes but have the same etymological root, which is the Arabic "صفر" (which transliterates as "sifr"). Via Italian this became "zefiro" and thence "zero" in modern English, Portuguese, French, Catalan and Italian ("cero" in Spanish). But via Spanish it became "cifra" and thence "cifre" in Old French and "cipher" in modern English (and "chiffre" in modern French).
"Zero" is more commonly used in mathematics and science, whereas "cipher" is used only in a literary style. Both also have other connotations. One may refer to a person as being a "social cipher", but would name them "Mr. Zero", for example.
"Nought" and "naught" versus "ought" and "aught"
In English, "naught" and "nought" mean the number 0, or a figurative "nothing", whereas "aught" and "ought" (the latter in its noun sense) strictly speaking mean "all" or "anything", and are not names for the number 0, even though they are sometimes used as such (as in the use of "aught" as a placeholder for zero in the pronunciation of calendar year numbers, along with that practice's reapplication in the pronunciation of derived terms, as when the rifle caliber .30-06 Springfield (introduced in 1906) is accordingly referred to by the name "thirty-aught-six".
The words "nought" and "naught" are spelling variants. They are, according to H. W. Fowler, not a modern accident as might be thought, but have descended that way from Old English. There is a distinction in British English between the two, but it is not one that is universally recognized. This distinction is that "nought" is primarily used in a literal arithmetic sense, where the number 0 is straightforwardly meant, whereas "naught" is used in poetical and rhetorical senses, where "nothing" could equally well be substituted. So the name of the board game is "noughts & crosses", whereas the rhetorical phrases are "bring to naught", "set at naught", and "availeth naught". The Reader's Digest Right Word at the Right Time labels "naught" as "old-fashioned".
The words "aught" and "ought" (the latter in its noun sense) similarly come from Old English "āwiht" and "ōwiht", which are similarly compounds of a ("ever") and wiht. Their meanings are thus the opposites to those of "naught" and "nought", and in English they in fact, strictly speaking, mean "anything" or "all". (Fowler notes that "aught" is an archaism, and that "all" is now used in phrases such as "for all (that) I know", where once they would have been "for aught (that) I know".)
However, "aught" and "ought" are also sometimes used as names for 0, in contradiction of their strict meanings. The reason for this is a rebracketing, whereby "a nought" and "a naught" have been misheard as "an ought" and "an aught".
Samuel Johnson thought that since "aught" was generally used for "anything" in preference to "ought", so also "naught" should be used for "nothing" in preference to "nought". However, he observed that "custom has irreversibly prevailed in using 'naught' for 'bad' and 'nought' for 'nothing'". Whilst this distinction existed in his time, in modern English, as observed by Fowler and The Reader's Digest above, it does not exist today. However, the sense of "naught" meaning "bad" is still preserved in the word "naughty", which is simply the noun "naught" plus the adjectival suffix "-y". This has never been spelled "noughty".
The spellings "owt" and "nowt" are sometimes used to emphasise northern English pronunciation.
The word aught continues in use for 0 in a series of one or more for sizes larger than 1. For American Wire Gauge, the largest gauges are written 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, and 4/0 and pronounced "one aught", "two aught", etc. Shot pellet diameters 0, 00, and 000 are pronounced "aught", "double aught", and "triple aught". Decade names with a leading zero (e.g., 1900 to 1909) were pronounced as "aught" or "nought". This leads to the year 1904 ('04) being spoken as "[nineteen] aught four" or "[nineteen] nought four". Another acceptable pronunciation includes "[nineteen] oh four".
The first decade of the 21st century has, but more in jest, been called the Naughties or Noughties. The first term appears to be intended as a pun on naughty and naught. The music and lifestyle magazine Wired favoured this term, which they claim was first proposed by the arts collective Foomedia in 1999. However, the term "Naughty Aughties" was suggested as far back as 1975 by Cecil Adams, in his column The Straight Dope. The second term is used occasionally by the BBC and employs the favoured British spelling nought for "zero." The digital radio station Absolute Radio 00s pronounces its name on-air as "Absolute Radio Noughties".
"Love", "duck", and "nil"
In scores for sporting events, in particular tennis, cricket, and football (soccer), the number 0 has the very specialized names "love", "duck", and "nil". This can cause difficulty for radio and television newsreaders, because the reader must be aware of which name to use, when the score is often written as the digit "0" in the script. (McLeish recommends to readers that they write the number out on the script in words if necessary.)
There is no definitive origin for the tennis score name for 0, "love". It first occurred in English, is of comparatively recent origin, and is not used in other languages. The most commonly believed hypothesis is that it is derived from English speakers mis-hearing the French "l'œuf", "the egg", which was the name for a score of zero used in French, because the symbol for a zero used on the scoreboard was an elliptical zero symbol, which visually resembled an egg. There is tangential support for this in the use of "duck" as the name for a score of zero by a batsman in cricket, which name derives from the full name "the duck's egg" for that score. The following cricketer's rhyme illustrates this:
And when eleven are matched against eleven,
And wrestle hard to mastery to gain,
Who tops the score is in the seventh heaven,
Who lays an egg, in an abyss of pain.—M. K. Brodie (1865)
A name related to the "duck egg" in cricket is the "goose egg" in baseball, a name whose origin is a description in The New York Times of 1886 where the journalist states that "the New York players presented the Boston men with nine unpalatable goose eggs", i.e. nine scores of zero.
However, the "l'oeuf" hypothesis has several problems, not the least of which is that in court tennis the score was not placed upon a scoreboard, and there is scant evidence that the French ever used "l'oeuf" as the name for a zero score in the first place, that name being as anecdotal as the hypothesis that "love" is then derived from it. (Jacob Bernoulli, for example, in his Letter to a Friend, used "à but" to describe the initial zero-zero score in court tennis, which in English is "love-all".) Some alternative hypotheses have similar problems. For example: The assertion that "love" comes from the Scots word "luff", meaning "nothing", falls at the first hurdle, because there is no authoritative evidence that there has ever been any such word in Scots in the first place.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word "love" in English to mean "zero" was to define how a game was to be played, rather than the score in the game itself. Gambling games could be played for stakes (money) or "for love (of the game)", i.e. for zero stakes. The first such recorded usage quoted in the OED was in 1678. The shift in meaning from "zero stakes" to "zero score" is not an enormous conceptual leap, and the first recorded usage of the word "love" to mean "no score" is by Hoyle in 1742 (OED, 2nd Edition).
BBC Radio 5 Live has broadcast spin-off versions of its football phone-in 6-0-6 ("six-oh-six") focused on cricket and tennis, branded as "6-Duck-6" and "6-Love-6" respectively, in the summer months during the soccer off-season.
Another name for 0 that is used in sports is "nil". This is derived from the Latin word "nihil", which means "nothing". Although common in British English, in football results and the like, it is only used infrequently in U.S. English. The British "nil" is not slang, and occurs in formal contexts including technical jargon (e.g. "nil by mouth") and voting results.
In spoken English, the number 0 is often read as the letter "o", often spelled oh. This is especially the case when the digit occurs within a list of other digits. Whereas one might say that "a million is expressed in base ten as a one followed by six zeroes", the series of digits "1070" would be read as "one o seven o". This is particularly true of telephone numbers (especially 867-5309, which is said as "eight-six-seven-five-three-oh-nine"). Another example is James Bond's designation, 007, which is always read as "double-o seven", not "double-zero seven".
The letter "o" ("oh") is also used in spoken English as the name of the number 0 when saying times in the 24-hour clock, particularly in English used by U.S. mililtary forces. Thus 16:05 is "sixteen oh five", and 08:30 is "oh eight thirty".
The use of O as a number can lead to confusion as in the ABO blood group system. Blood can either contain antigen A (type A), antigen B (type B), both (type AB) or none (type O). Since the 'O' signifies the lack of antigens it's more meaningful for it to represent the number 'Oh' (zero) than the letter O. However, in English 'blood type O' is usually written with a letter O and not with a number 0 as in most other European languages.
- The use of "aught" and "ought" to mean "zero" is looked down on by some especially older, upper-class people because "aught" originally meant something else and because the new meaning arose due to a reinterpretation of "a naught" as "an aught". This common process (called "misanalysis" by linguists) is not considered a confusion or not even noticed by these same people in other English words when it happened long enough ago, for example "an auger" was originally "a nauger".
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- Online Etymology Dictionary, Naught.
- H. W. Fowler (1958). "aught". Modern English Usage. Glasgow: Oxford University Press. p. 36.
- Online Etymology Dictionary, Aught.
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