Nothing in particular

Odd Words, Even Numbers refers throughout to zero but what about “nought”?

I am often asked whether we should write “nought” or “naught”. Neither is wrong. Both mean “nothing”, however, according to current conventions, the correct spelling will depend on what you are referring to.

“Naught” is used mainly as a non-mathematical term or literary word meaning “nothing”, as in the phrase “it was all for naught”, whereas “nought” has come to indicate the number/digit zero or 0. It appears as nought in the title of “noughts and crosses”. Both words originate from the Old English “no aught” and in Yorkshire and other northern counties they are often expressed as “nowt”.

“Naughty” is a construct of “naught” (an obsolete word for wickedness) and the “y” suffix (indicating “full of”).

The two spellings have become interchangeable in one particular context – the “noughties” and the “naughties” both of which refer to the first decade of the century possibly by way of a wordplay on the “Naughty Nineties”.

While we are thinking of nothing, what is the origin of the word “nil”? Well it is simply a contraction of the Latin “nihil” meaning …… nothing.

In sport we use various terms to indicate a nil score. In tennis, “love” indicates a failure to score. This is possibly after the sports term “goose-egg” meaning zero in reference to its rotundity and resemblance to the digit 0. But how do we define “love”? One theory , which I choose to believe, is that “love” derives from the French “l’oeuf” in reference to that goose-egg. Whilst this may be fanciful it nonetheless has the merit that it resonates with the term “duck” in cricket meaning a failure to score!

Blog by Ian Paterson, author of Odd Words, Even Numbers by Thorogood Publishing

Published on Apr 04, 2017 by Chris Vince