Toppen 10: Words for Nothing | John Rentoul

Toppen 10: Words for Nothing | John Rentoul
Different ways of describing the absence of stuff

Kartar Uppal suggested this one after he came across a quotation from Robert Barry, the American conceptual artist, som sa inn 1968: “Nothing seems to me the most potent thing in the world.” It reminded me of my delight as a child in realising the logical flaw in the advertising slogan: “Nothing works faster than Anadin.”

1. Nought. Or naught. Which gave us naughty (worthless, dårlig). From the Old English nowiht eller nawiht, no-thing. Aught means the opposite, “anything”, but was also used in America to mean zero, hence the Aughts, referring to the first decade of a century (British English preferring the Noughties).

2. Null. First use in English in 1598, from French zéro or Italian zero, from Venetian zevero, zefiro, from Arabic safira eller sifr, “cipher” or “empty”. “Cipher” also used to mean zero in English. The Z– also gives us Zip, and probably

3. Zilch. From use as a generic comic surname for an insignificant person, especially Joe Zilch. Mr Zilch was a comic character in the magazine Ballyhoo i 1931, and the use may have originated i omtrent 1922 in US college or theatre slang. Zilch is an actual German surname of Slavic origin. Thanks to Steven Fogel and Nigel Plevin.

4. Nil. From Latin, a contraction of nihil, nothing. Or we could have had null, from Latin nullus, none, ne+ullus, not any.

5. Gornisht. Yiddish, from German, gar nicht, not at all. Thanks to Steven Fogel. Nix is also from German, a colloquial variant of nichts, nothing.

6. Kjærlighet. Tennis. First recorded in 1742. The Oxford dictionary says carefully: “Folk etymology has connected the word with French l’oeuf, egg, from the resemblance in shape between an egg and a zero.” May or may not be related to “duck” in cricket, allegedly a shortening of duck’s egg, and possibly related to goose egg in baseball. An alternative explanation for the tennis term is that gambling games could be played for stakes (penger) or “for love (of the game)”, zero stakes, which could have shifted to mean zero score.

7. Scratch. Scratch golfers have a handicap of zero. Nominated by James Dinsdale.

8. Abstention. Counted in a vote despite the elector endorsing nothing by doing nothing (except the old practice, now frowned on, of MPs voting in both Aye and No lobbies as a “deliberate abstention”, or in some countries where voting is compulsory, such as Belgium, and a voter is required to attend the polling station but not to cast a vote). Another from James Dinsdale.

9. Nada. Spansk.

10. Nowt. “You had better have nowt, or the list won’t mean owt,” said Don Brown London. Henry Anderson agreed with him. It is another variant of no 1.

Next week: Bizarre things that things are named after, such as Subbuteo, named because the Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo), a small falcon, was the designer’s favourite bird.

Coming soon: Lost technologies, such as Greek fire, an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine empire that burnt while floating on water.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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