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In the TV show Batman: The Animated Series, the character of Joker said the phrase "zero, zip, zilch, nada". Looking at Google results for that phrase, it seems to be more widely used, so I assume the show didn't coin it.

So, the question is: how did this phrase came to be?

I understand that each of the four words means "nothing", and I'm not interested in the etymology of each word, only them being used together like this.

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Roget's Thesaurus? –  Hugo Feb 17 at 14:08
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2 Answers 2

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The phrase, with variants, predates Batman: The Animated Series (1992 to 1995).

The earliest result in Google Books is a snippet of Me, Minsky & Max by Bruce Pollock (Page 221, 1978):

This whole dumb trip might have been for nothing! Zero, zilch, zip, nada, nothing. I wondered how I'd recognize him. Would he give off some kind of winning quintessential Stillman gleam, or would he come laden with the aroma of a loser?

The earliest full view result is from InfoWorld magazine (7 Feb 1983 - Page 20, Vol. 5, No. 6):

You've obtained your first home computer, taklen it fresh out of the box, set it up on the computer stand and plugged it in. Nothing happens. You click a few switches, tinker with the keys and try again. Zilch, nada, nil; zero response. The box is declared dead on arrival.


As FumbleFingers commented, National Lampoon (Page 311 - 1974 - ‎Snippet view) has an earlier variant without nada:

Sooner or later the whole damn world's going to know, anyway. The NatLamp's washed up. That's right. We're finished. Fresh out of ideas. Empty. Barren. Bumed out. And there's nothing left. Zip. Zilch. Zero. The square root of sweet fuck all.

The repetition is for emphasis and to make a point, and they have a jocular effect which is reminiscent of Monty Python's dead parrot sketch from 1969:

'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

I also joked this is similar to Roget's Thesaurus so here's an entry from an 1879 edition:

 101. 31ero. — v. zero, notfaing; naught, nought ; cipher, none, nobo^; not a soul ; dme qui vive ; abseiuse £c 187 ; unsubstantiality &c. 4. Jk.&3. not -one, - any.

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Arguably because they're a bit WASP-ish National Lampoon didn't think to include the Spanish element in their 1974 version And there's nothing left. Zip. Zilch. Zero. The square root of sweet fuck all. I quite like their fourth term though, even if it is a bit long-winded and technical/mathematical. –  FumbleFingers Feb 17 at 14:39
    
@FumbleFingers: That's clearly an earlier variant of the same thing. Reminds me of the dead parrot sketch. –  Hugo Feb 17 at 16:33
    
Indeed. That poor parrot will probably go down in history as the most conclusively dead bird ever. (Much deader than the dodo, even putting aside the matter of whether the dodo should be classified as fish, fowl, or good red herring! :) –  FumbleFingers Feb 17 at 18:03
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These are all called Squatitives, believe it or not.
In particular, zero, zip, zilch (and perhaps nada) are Bahnhofers.

These words participate in a lot of odd syntax involving emphatic negation.
For instance, both kinds of sentence below occur, and are intended to mean the same:

  • He doesn't know Zero/Zilch/Zip/Nada about it.
  • He knows Zero/Zilch/Zip/Nada about it.

There are many more, in many languages, and many more constructions involving them.
A short list of Squatitives currently being researched is available here.

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I don't make up these names, honest. They're Haj Ross's responsibility. –  John Lawler Feb 17 at 19:30
    
How are these words related to railway stations? –  svick Feb 17 at 21:34
    
Not to railway stations, but to Bahnhof. It's an idiom in German: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. –  John Lawler Feb 17 at 22:04
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protected by tchrist Jun 19 at 18:30

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