Names for the number 0 in English

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"Zero" is the usual name for the number 0 in English. In British English "nought" is also used. In American English "naught" is used occasionally for zero, but (as with British English) "naught" is more often used as an archaic word for nothing. "Nil", "love", and "duck" are used by different sports for scores of zero.

There is a need to maintain an explicit distinction between digit zero and letter O,[a] which, because they are both usually represented in English orthography (and indeed most orthographies that use Latin script and Arabic numerals) with a simple circle or oval, have a centuries-long history of being frequently conflated. However, in spoken English, the number 0 is often read as the letter "o" ("oh"). For example, when dictating a telephone number, the series of digits "1070" may be spoken as "one zero seven zero" or as "one oh seven oh", even though the letter "O" on the telephone keypad in fact corresponds to the digit 6.

In certain contexts, zero and nothing are interchangeable, as is "null". Sporting terms are sometimes used as slang terms for zero, as are "nada", "zilch" and "zip".

"Zero" and "cipher"[edit]

"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.[1] 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, Romanian and Italian ("cero" in Spanish). But via Spanish it became "cifra" and thence "cifre" in Old French, "cifră" in Romanian and "cipher" in modern English (and "chiffre" in modern French).[2]

"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.[2]

In his discussion of "naught" and "nought" in Modern English Usage (see below), H. W. Fowler uses "cipher" to name the number 0.[3]

"Nought" and "naught" versus "ought" and "aught"[edit]

In English, "nought" and "naught" mean zero or nothingness, whereas "ought" and "aught" (the former in its noun sense) strictly speaking mean "all" or "anything", and are not names for the number 0. Nevertheless, they are sometimes used as such in American English; for example, "aught" as a placeholder for zero in the pronunciation of calendar year numbers. That practice is then also reapplied in the pronunciation of derived terms, such 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".[3][4]

Whilst British English makes this distinction, in United States English, the spelling "naught" is preferred for both the literal and rhetorical/poetic senses.[4]

"Naught" and "nought" come from the Old English "nāwiht" and "nōwiht", respectively, both of which mean "nothing". They are compounds of no- ("no") and wiht ("thing").[4][5][6]

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 opposites to "naught" and "nought"—they 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".)[4][7][8]

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".[2][4]

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".[2]

The words "owt" and "nowt" are used in Northern English. For example, if tha does owt for nowt do it for thysen: if you do something for nothing do it for yourself.[9]

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 "single 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 is "[nineteen] oh four".

Decade names[edit]

While "2000s" has been used to describe the decade consisting of the years 2000–2009 in all English speaking countries, there have been some national differences in the usage of other terms.

On January 1, 2000, the BBC listed the noughties (derived from "nought"[10] a word used for zero in many English-speaking countries), as a potential moniker for the new decade.[11] This has become a common name for the decade in the U.K.[12][13][14][15][16] and Australia,[17][18] as well as some other English-speaking countries. However, this has not become the universal descriptor because, as Douglas Coupland pointed out early in the decade, "[Noughties] won't work because in America the word 'nought' is never used for zero, never ever".[19]

The American music and lifestyle magazine Wired favoured "Naughties", which they claim was first proposed by the arts collective Foomedia in 1999.[20] However, the term "Naughty Aughties" was suggested as far back as 1975 by Cecil Adams, in his column The Straight Dope.[21]


In scores for sporting events, in particular tennis and association football, the number 0 has the very specialized names "love" 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.)[22] In cricket, a batsman who is out without scoring is said to have scored "a duck", but "duck" is not used as a synonym for zero in the same way that "love" or "nil" are: it is always accompanied by the indefinite article and is not usually used in a formal reading of a team's scoresheet.

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.[23][24] 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:[25][26]

And when eleven are matched against eleven,
And wrestle hard the 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)[27]

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.[25]

However, the l'œuf 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'œuf 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.[25][28]

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.[29]

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.[30][31][32]

"O" ("oh")[edit]

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. While one might say that "a million is expressed in base ten as a one followed by six zeroes", the series of digits "1070" can be read as "one zero seven zero", or "one oh seven oh". This is particularly true of telephone numbers (for example 867-5309, which can be 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".[33][34][35]

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 both British and U.S. military forces. Thus 16:05 is "sixteen oh five", and 08:30 is "oh eight thirty".[36]

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 could be more meaningful to English-speakers for it to represent the number "oh" (zero). However, "blood type O" is properly written with a letter O and not with a number 0.[37]


In certain contexts, zero and nothing are interchangeable, as is "null". However, in mathematics and many scientific disciplines, a distinction is made (see null). The number 0 is represented by zero while null is a representation of an empty set {}. Hence in computer science a zero represents the outcome of a mathematical computation such as 2−2, while null is used for an undefined state (for example, a memory location that has not been explicitly initialised).


Sporting terms (see above) are sometimes used as slang terms for zero, as are "nada", "zilch" and "zip".

"Zilch" is a slang term for zero, and it can also mean "nothing". The origin of the term is unknown.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In many fonts the character for zero (number "0") and the letter "O" have slightly different shapes. In some fonts (and also in hand writing), where there is a need for a clear distinction a "slashed zero" (Slashed zero (2).jpg) is used.


  1. ^ "cipher | meaning of cipher in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English | LDOCE". Retrieved 2017-07-08.
  2. ^ a b c d John Baker Opdycke (1949). Mark My Words, A Guide to Modern Usage and Expression. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 640.
  3. ^ a b H. W. Fowler (1958). "naught, nought". Modern English Usage. Glasgow: Oxford University Press. p. 371.
  4. ^ a b c d e John Ellison Kahn and Robert Ilson, ed. (1985). "naught, nought". The Right Word at the Right Time. London: The Reader's Digest Association Ltd. pp. 374–375.
  5. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". 1906-02-18. Retrieved 2017-07-08.
  6. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2017-07-08.
  7. ^ H. W. Fowler (1958). "aught". Modern English Usage. Glasgow: Oxford University Press. p. 36.
  8. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2017-07-08.
  9. ^ "Owt for nowt". 26 July 2016.
  10. ^ "Complete Definition of "noughties"". August 14, 2007. Archived from the original on 2014-05-12. Retrieved February 13, 2012.
  11. ^ "The noughties: So where are we now?". BBC News. January 1, 2000. Archived from the original on 2014-05-12. Retrieved April 21, 2010.
  12. ^ Hill, Dave (March 29, 2011). "Olympic hockey and Leyton Orient: the astroturf connection". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 2012-05-26. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  13. ^ McCormick, Neil (September 18, 2009). "100 songs that defined the Noughties". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 2014-05-13. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  14. ^ Tedmanson, Sophie (October 20, 2009). "The Noughties year by year". The Times. London. Archived from the original on 2011-08-18. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  15. ^ Tremlett, Giles (March 28, 2011). "At-a-glance guide to Spain". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 2012-05-29. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  16. ^ Bowers, Simon (March 23, 2011). "Budget 2011: Chancellor moves to close online VAT loophole". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 2013-02-06. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  17. ^ Stewart, Cameron (December 26, 2009). "The roaring noughties". The Australian. Retrieved March 3, 2013.
  18. ^ Huxley, John (December 26, 2009). "Never so good". Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 2012-11-05. Retrieved March 3, 2013.
  19. ^ Rohrer, Finlo (31 December 2009). "Decade dilemma". BBC News.
  20. ^ Silberman, Steve. "Here Come 'The Naughties'". WIRED. Retrieved 2017-07-08.
  21. ^ Cecil Adams (1975-01-01). "What will the first decade of the 21st century be called?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 2017-07-08.
  22. ^ Robert McLeish (2005). Radio Production. Elsevier. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-240-51972-2.
  23. ^ Palmatier, Robert (1995). Speaking of animals: a dictionary of animal metaphors. p. 245. ISBN 9780313294907.
  24. ^ Horn, Geoffrey (2006). Rafael Nadal. p. 13. ISBN 9780836861846.
  25. ^ a b c Malcolm D. Whitman (2004). "The origin of "love" in scoring". Tennis. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 59–65. ISBN 978-0-486-43357-8.
  26. ^ J. A. H. Murray (1897). New English Dictionary. Vol. 3 part 1. Oxford. p. 702.
  27. ^ C. Box (1877). English Game of Cricket. London. p. 449.
  28. ^ Edith Dudley Sylla (2006). "Translator's Commentary on the Letter to a Friend and Miscellaneous Thesis 32". The Art of Conjecturing, Together with Letter to a Friend on Sets in Court Tennis. JHU Press. pp. 399–400. ISBN 978-0-801-88235-7.
  29. ^ OED, 2nd Edition.
  30. ^ Charles Albert Ferguson and Thom Huebner (1996). "Sports Announcer Talk". Sociolinguistic Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press US. p. 164. ISBN 0-19-509290-2.
  31. ^ Namrata Palta and Mary Stella (2007). Facing Job Interviews. New Delhi: Lotus Press. p. 92. ISBN 978-81-8382-106-3.
  32. ^ Philip Bell and Roger John Bell (1998). "Australian English". Americanization and Australia. UNSW Press. ISBN 978-0-868-40784-5.
  33. ^ Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik (2002). "Numerals". A Communicative Grammar of English. Pearson Education. p. 337. ISBN 978-0-582-50633-6.
  34. ^ Loreto Todd and Ian F. Hancock (1990). International English usage. Routledge. p. 319. ISBN 0-7099-4314-8.
  35. ^ Bernard Graham Shaw (2000). "Commercial Scripts". Voice-Overs. Routledge. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-878-30115-7.
  36. ^ Scott A. Ostrow (2003). Guide to Joining the Military. Peterson's. p. 248. ISBN 978-0-768-91441-2.
  37. ^ P. Schmidt & M. Okroi, “Also sprach Landsteiner—Blood Group ‘O’ or Blood Group ‘NULL’,” Review Article, Infusion Therapy and Transfusion Medicine / Infusionstherapie und Transfusionsmedizin 28, 4 (July 2001): 206–208; G. Garratty et al., “Terminology for Blood Group Antigens and Genes—Historical Origins and Guidelines in the New Millennium,” Transfusion 40, 4 (April 2000): 477–489.
  38. ^ "Zilch – Definition from Merriam Webster". Retrieved 2008-12-15.

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