The Grammarphobia Blog

The many ways to say nothing

Q: Do we know about when people started saying “oh” in place of “zero”? For example, “Back in oh-four, Bush was president.” I vaguely recall that at the turn of the previous century, “aught” was used in the same manner. Any idea?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary says that both the word “oh” and the letter “O” are nouns representing the figure zero, or “nought,” or “nothing.”

The single letter “O” (usually capitalized) was the first to be used with these meanings.

This use of the letter “O” dates back to the late 1500s, before the word “zero” actually came into English, and it may even go back to the early 1400s.

The OED defines the use of “O” this way as meaning “the figure or symbol zero, 0; nought; (hence) a cipher, a mere nothing.”

(The mathematical symbol 0 showed up in India at least as far back as 876, according to “All for Nought,” an essay by Bill Casselman, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.)

Oxford has one possible, though questionable, citation for the use of the letter “O” as zero from The Crafte of Nombrynge (1425), an early treatise on arithmetic.

The dictionary’s earliest definite example is from 1596, but we’ll skip ahead to this one in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1608): “Thou art an O without a figure, I am better then thou art now, I am a foole, thou art nothing.”

The use of the longer “oh” for this purpose, which the OED calls a “variant” of the other usage, was a much later development. It didn’t appear in print until the early 20th century.

The OED’s earliest published citation is from a 1908 issue of an American magazine, the Railroad Telegrapher: “Wishing one and all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, hoping to see everyone out in nineteen oh nine.”

The OED’s definition notes that the use of “oh” to mean zero or “nought” usually appears “in combination with other numerals.”

The spelling of this “oh,” Oxford notes, is modeled after the spelling of the earlier interjection “oh!” 

And as it happens, the interjection written as “oh!” originated as a 16th-century variant of the Old English interjection written as one letter, “O.” The longer spelling, the OED says, was “probably intended to express a longer or stronger sound.”

But getting back to those little nothings, the word “zero” came into English in the early 17th century, either from the French word zéro or its source, the Italian zero, the OED says.

The Italian word is short for zefiro, which Oxford says came into that language from the Arabic word çifr (empty, nought, cipher).

According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the Arabic word came from Sanskrit, in which sunya meant “empty place, desert, naught, a cipher.”

You mentioned the use of “aught” in dates, but what you’re actually hearing is spelled “ought” (as in “nineteen-ought-four”).

The OED says the use of  “ought” to mean “a nought, zero, cipher,”  dates from the 1820s and is probably a variant of “nought.”

Here’s a contemporary citation, from William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed (1979): “Strawberry Bill had played left field for Toronto in ought eight when Francis played third.”

The noun and pronoun spelled “nought” (or “naught”) means “nothing.” It’s the negative form of “aught,” which means “anything.”

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