Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Nought, nil, nada, nothing, zero, zilch and zip. Don’t forget love and a duck.

‘Nothing’ is a confusing concept for those learning English as a second language.

Stan Wawrinka leads in a tennis match forty-love (40-0). Arsenal thrashed Manchester United in their football match five-nil (5-0). West Indian batsman Viv Richards was rarely dismissed in cricket for a duck (0).

Interest rates in the UK increase by 0.05% (nought-point-oh-five per cent), but in the US rates increase by (zero-point-oh-five per cent).

Is Daniel Craig now the greatest ever double-oh-seven (007)? The French fought the English in ten-sixty-six (1066) and Roberto Rossellini was born in nineteen-oh-six (1906).

Confused? Yes, me too. Here’s a rough guide to nothing:

Zero is probably the easiest term to use. It can be a number such as 0.5 (zero-point-five) and a placeholder (one million has six zeros). Today, it is fine to use zero for almost everything.

The Geneva telephone code is zero-two-two or oh-two-two and 0.905 is zero-point nine-oh-five, but more and more people now say zero-point-nine-zero-five, which may upset some language purists. However a British person would most likely say: nought-point-9-oh-5.

Even Mr Bond is sometimes referred to as zero-zero-seven and nobody has yet been garrotted.

The zero is well-travelled. It can be traced back to the Indian mathematician and astrologer Aryabhata (476 AD) and the introduction of the decimal numbers 0-10. Mathematics blossomed.


The zero spread across Europe in the Middle Ages via Arab traders who further developed what we call today the Hindu-Arabic numerical system. Merchants and bankers soon saw the brilliance of the zero. They replaced impossible Roman numerical equations such as XIV x XXIV and launched double-entry bookkeeping. With zeros we can generate almost any number, although oddly, we still don’t have a standardised counting system for large numbers.

Zero probably comes from zephirum in Arabic, became zero in Italian, zéro in French and then finally moved into English.

Americans prefer zero, whereas the English prefer nought as the number 0. Nought comes the old English word naught which means nothing. It has literary, rather than mathematical origins. Shakespeare liked the word naught, but most English learners are mystified by the term nought; another reason to stick with the all-powerful zero.

Expression: to come to naught (to come to nothing) means to be unsuccessful or fail completely. Our efforts to keep the family business came to naught in the end (failed completely).

Oh (the sound of the letter O) is used in decimal fractions such as 0.002 (zero-point-oh-oh-two). Speakers of English as a second language often replace the ‘oh’ with zero: zero-point-zero-zero-two.

Oh is still widely used and cannot be discarded like the nought. For example:

We are watching the Hawaii 5-0 (Hawaii-Five-oh) TV series in room 101 (one–oh-one) at the Star Hotel which was built in 1907 (nineteen-oh-seven).

Love (tennis), duck (cricket) both come from eggs. Love (40-love) is a corruption of the French word l'oeuf (egg), used to describe zero because of its oval shape just like a zero. Tennis as we know it today, grew out of a kind of handball - jeu de paume - played in France in the 17th century.



An English newspaper described the Prince of Wales' (King Edward VII) cricket score of nought in 1866, as the Prince “retired to the royal pavilion on a ‘duck's egg’”. The term was shortened to a duck.


Other slang terms are zilch, nada and zip. But my favourite term for nothing is probably diddly squat, an American slang term.  You don’t know diddly squat about rugby. Of course the All Blacks are the best team.

Here’s a little test. You can check your answers below:

  1. Can I have some champagne please?  I’m in Room 608.

  2. The exact figure is 0.002.

  3. Please call Adele on 028 6559001.

  4. We have reduced the number of damaged products to less than 0.01 per cent.

  5. We expect an increase of about 0.25%.

  6. Roger is leading 30-0 in the first game of the second set.

  7. My grandfather was born in 1909.

  8. It’s freezing. It must 10 degrees below 0.


  1. Six-oh-eight or six-zero-eight

  2. Zero-point-oh-oh-two or nought-point-oh-oh-two

  3. Oh-2-8-6-double 5-9-double oh-1 or zero-2-8-6 double 5-9-double zero-1.

  4. Zero-point-oh-1 per cent or nought point-oh-1 per cent.

  5. Zero-point-2-5 per cent or nought-point-2-5 per cent

  6. Thirty-love

  7. 19–oh-9

  8. 10 degrees below zero



Du même auteur

Les newsletters de Bilan

Le cercle des lecteurs

Le Cercle des Lecteurs est une plate-forme d'échanger sur tout ce qui touche votre magazine. C'est le reflet de vos opinions, et votre porte-parole le plus fidèle. Plus d'info

Image Footer

"Tout ce qui compte.
Pour vous."