I’ve recently been asked in class when people use nought, nil, oh… if they all mean zero and I’ve found this interesting post with clear explanations and examples that I think it may help.
Zero, zilch, zip, nil, nought, nothing – they all mean the same but are used in different situations.
Zero: the number that represents nothing
We have a tendency to say it as ‘oh’ and surely the most famous example of that is ‘double oh seven’ or 007, the fictional British spy James Bond’s codename. When giving ‘phone numbers, most people will say ‘oh’ rather than zero, so 0207 6415 would be ‘oh two oh seven’ and so on.
When telling the time using the 24-hour clock we also tend to use ‘oh’ as in ‘oh eight hundred hours’ for 08:00. Note that in English we don’t use an ‘h’ to separate the digits the way the French do, for example 08h00 would be incorrect in English.
Nil: word used to mean nothing or zero
Nil is used for scores, so for example when the results of football matches are read out you’ll hear ‘Wolverhampton Rovers one (1), Birmingham nil (0)’. There is always an exception to the rule and this applies to tennis, where the word ‘love’ is used instead of nil. So the score 40:0 will be read ‘40:love’ and the winner of a game in which his or her opponent did not score any points will be said to have won a ‘love game’.
Nought: not a thing
This is often written ‘naught’ in the US and in northern England people say ‘nowt’. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it’ would be ‘There’s nowt you can do about it’. We also use it to describe the number zero, ‘There’s a nought missing on the end of that number’. Of course we mustn’t forget to mention the recently coined term the ‘noughties’ used to refer to the years 2000 to 2009.
There is also a game that is called “noughts and crosses”, the famous O and X:
Those three words are the official terms, but there is also a whole raft of slang or colloquial terms as well.
Zilch is slang for nothing. “They paid me zilch for my hard day’s work?”
Zip is used in the same way, and is probably more likely to be heard in the US than in the UK.
Nix is another one which comes from the German ‘nichts’ to mean nothing.
Diddly-squat means a small or worthless amount. It is usually used with a negative, so when you say of someone ‘he didn’t know diddly-squat’, it means he knew nothing.