Thursday, September 1, 2011

How many names does zero have?

One of the things my students find incredible about the English language is that a figure like zero should have so many different names. Have you ever come to think about it? I don’t know if this happens in other languages, but at least it doesn’t happen in Spanish...
It’s not only that it has many names, but also they are used in different contexts. Let’s have a look:
  • Zero. This word derives from the Arab word sifr, meaning “empty”. It is mainly used in mathematics: counting, percentages, decimals..., and also when talking about the temperature: 0º C (zero degrees Celsius)
  • Nought or naught  in American English is an older word for zero. It comes from Old English nowiht, meaning “nothing”. Today, its use is very similar to that of zero. He wrote a cheque with a figure containing five noughts. The famous game tic-tac-toe in which the players try to make a line of three noughts or crosses between vertical and horizontal lines is also called nougths and crosses.
Noughts and crosses
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  • Nil comes from Latin nihil , meaning “nothing”. It is used in sports such as football, especially in British English. They won by three goals to nil.
  • O (often spelled oh) is used when giving telephone numbers and addresses, talking about time and also in the designation of James Bond: 007 (double o seven). It’s 4:09 (four oh nine). I live at 207 Melbourne Avenue (two oh seven).

  • Love is used in tennis. It’s origin is difficult to trace, but it’s been used to mean zero in this sport since the 18th century. Nadal is winning 40-0 (forty love)
Rafael Nadal
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  • Duck is zero in cricket. The term is short for “duck’s egg”, which is supposed to look like the shape of the number “0”. Jones was dismissed for a duck in the first-innings.
  • Zilch is slang for zero or nothing. The U.S. personal-savings rate has risen from zilch last year to 3 percent of disposable income.
  • Zip is American slang for zero. I received zip for money after doing the job for them.

Do you know any other name for zero?

In the following video we will hear how to say different numbers, including some of the names of zero


  1. Hello,

    I've had a similar conversation with students learning English and I think you have the common ones. In my family we say ' zip, zero, zilch, nada, bupkis' ...meaning none :-)
    I just checked and both nada and bupkis are in Wiktionary, meaning nothing, however it's more a matter of interest than an urgent ELL matter!


    1. Hi Megan,
      The word "nada" is Spanish and it means "nothing". It is supposed to have been introduced in the English language by Hemingway. On the other hand, I had never seen the word "bupkis" before. I wonder if it is mainly used in America. Thank you very much for your contribution!


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