Zero and Its Synonyms

By Mark Nichol

The word zero has a small but distinctive set of synonyms, which are listed in this post.

Zero is the word for the symbol 0, representing the absence of magnitude or quantity and the value between positive and negative numbers. The word also represents the lowest point or the starting point for measurement or, as in the phrase “ground zero,” a point of impact or origin. In addition, it refers to absence or impartiality, or to the lowest possible score on a test, and as slang it describes a worthless person or one with little or no discernible charm or personality.

The word ultimately derives, like many arithmetical and scientific terms, from Arabic, in this case sifr, which means “zero” or “empty” and is also the source of the synonym cipher. Meanwhile, cipher itself, while also occasionally expressing the numerical symbol, describes a nonentity, with the connotation that a person so identified has no influence or no distinguishing characteristics, as in a reference to someone mysteriously vague. This sense of mystery extends to the sense for cipher of a method of encoding information, or a coded message itself. A cipher may also be a combination of letters used symbolically, similar to a monogram.

Aught and naught, discussed in more detail in this post, are also synonyms of zero (as is nought, a variant of the latter word), but briefly, aught is employed usually when referring to the first decade of a century (in which the tens place of any given year is represented by a zero) or to a zero used in decimal measurement. Naught, however, is used in the sense of “nothing.”

Nothing itself, as might be guessed, literally means “no thing” and stems from Old English. In addition to pertaining to a lack of quantity, nothing alludes to nonexistence and is used, like zero, to suggest that someone is worthless. However, it also, in plural form, refers to playful remarks, especially, as part of “sweet nothings,” in a romantic context. It is also employed, though rarely, as an adjective or adverb.

Nil, a contraction of the Latin word nihil (the root of nihilism, the word for a philosophy of renunciation of traditional ideas or morals), is ultimately from nihilum, literally “not (even) a trifle,” and generally alludes to a comparison, such as a sports score or to the distinction, or lack thereof, between two like objects, or to (a lack of) probability; one’s chances of achieving an impossible result, for example, are said to be nil.

Zilch and zip, both of obscure origin, are slang synonyms for zero. The letter o and the word oh are also, because of the resemblance of the letter to the symbol for zero, used informally in speech and rarely in writing to refer to the symbol, as is “goose egg,” from the similarity in shape between that object and the symbol. (On a related note, the use of love to indicate a zero score in tennis is said to originate in the phrase l’oeuf, French for “the egg,” though this etymology is disputed.)

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10 Responses to “Zero and Its Synonyms”

  • Dale A. Wood

    An even longer list of near-synonyms for “zero”:
    ZED, zee, zilch, zip, nadir, nairn, naught, negatory, nil, NIX, none, nothing, NULL, and “izard”. (I believe that “nairn” is Scottish in origin.)
    The Latin prepositional phrase “ex nihilo” means “out of nothing”.
    Supposedly, the Universe emerged “ex nihilio”, according to many theories and religions.
    “Nix” was also the name of the Greek goddess of primeval darkness, and one of the satellites of Pluto is named “Nix”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    One of those remarkable catchphrases:
    “Do you want to be a zero or a hero?”

  • Dale A. Wood

    In physics and engineering: zero, subzero, low, very low, ultralow, superlow, extremely low, absolute zero (in thermodynamics) ( -273.15 kelvins), the nadir, null effect.
    In mathematic & logic: null set, null space, null hypothesis, null point, null calibration, null gravity.
    In geography: the Nullarbor Plain of southwestern Australia (no trees on it, and also just one railroad line).

  • Dale A. Wood

    For those of you who love our words that have Greek and Latin roots:
    In mathematics, there is the important Axiom of Trichotomy:
    For any real number x, we have three and only three possibilities:
    Either x is a positive number (x > 0),
    or x is zero (x = 0), or
    x is a negative number (x < 0).
    Wow, the number 3 is a really important one: trichotomy, ternary, Trinity, triple, triplet, triangle, tribunal, trident, triplane, tri-bladed propeller, three-legged stool…

  • Dale A. Wood

    What a pair: Nietzsche and nihilism.
    What a pair: the null set and the empty set.
    What a set of opposites: the nadir and the null – as compared with the acme, cornucopia, crest, hilltop, Matterhorn, Mt. Fuji, Mt. Olympus, peak, Shangri-La, summit, ultimate, Valhalla, zenith.

  • Dale A. Wood

    So, all of these concepts related to “zero” all start with “n”:
    No, none, nothing, nairn, negatory, nil, nix, null, and related to these is “nadir”, which is as low as you can go!
    The nadir is the very opposite of the zenith.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is also the word “null”, which means “nothing at all”.
    In mathematics, logic, and set theory, there is the “null set”, which is so empty that it does not even contain zero. There is a special symbol for it, and this is a vital concept in many fields, and especially in probability and random processes.
    In statistics and decision theory, there is the concept of the “null hypothesis”. If you make the hypothesis H, then the null hypothesis is “not H”. Then, it you can show that the probability of “not H” is very small, you have shown that H is very, very probable. (very likely)
    In another field, a “null court” makes decisions that cannot be enforced, and so its rulings do not mean very much in the real world.
    Another kind of null court existed under Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism. The decisions had already been made (The accused was guilty already.), and so the “trial” was just a performance: a “Show Trial”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    So, I wonder about the surname “Nixon”.
    Does this mean Nix + son = the son of nobody?
    (The man without a father, as happened in ancient times, with Zeus, Bacchus, the satyrs, and the barbarian raiders.)
    Else, does it mean Nix + son = the son of a snowy place, the son of the man from the snowy mountains?
    Zeus supposedly took on the form of a snake, visited the bedroom of the mother of Alexander the Great, and impregnated her.
    Hercules was also supposed to be the son of a mortal woman and one of the great gods. He was born a demigod, and later on he was promoted to a god and put into the sky in the form of the constellation Hercules.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The word “nix” is also the Latin word for “snow”.
    There is a huge volcano on Mars that has been called, at different times, “Nix Olympica” and “Olympus Mons”. Both of these names refer to the whiteness of the snow/frost on its top, and of Mt. Olympus, one of the few snowy mountains of Greece.
    Mt. Olympus was also the home of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses, like Zeus, Hera, Athena, Ares (Mars), Aphrodite (Venus), Vulcan, Diana, Ceres, and Chronos (Saturn).
    Other gods visited there from time to time, like Poseidon (Neptune), the god of the sea, Pluto (the god of the underworld), Apollo (the god of the sun), Hermes (Mercury), and Hercules.
    Of course, some of us might say that we liked Bacchus the best – the god of wine, revelry, and lust!

  • Dale A. Wood

    You have left out practically the simplest one of them all:
    “nix” in English sounds exactly the same as “nichts” in German, and “nichts” means “nothing”. These meanings are also tied together via Anglo-Saxon-Jute and Middle German.
    “The bossman put a big nix on my idea to save money!”
    “Ich weiss nichts” means “I know nothing”, just as Sergeant Schultz said over and over again in “Hogan’s Heroes”.
    The actor John Banner (Schultz) was Austrian, and while speaking English, he could really say “nothing” with a trill of his tongue that I cannot imitate at all. The tongue-trilling in certain words is definitely a characteristic of the German of Austria, Bavaria, and Switzerland.

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