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Dictionary.com gave the origin as:

1595–1605; < Italian < Medieval Latin zephirum < Arabic ṣifr cipher

I'm just wondering who coined the actual English term 'zero'? I know that sometime in history there was a man who achieved a mathematical breakthrough, and came up with the idea of 'zero', but who actually coined the word? Can somebody trace its etymology?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

More than what was asked, but below is a near-copy of an etymological answer I left on math.SE a while ago, on the etymological origin of the words "zero", "cipher", and "nought". (Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary.)

  • zero: circa 1600, (either from Middle Latin zephirum, or French zéro or its source Italian zero, for *zefiro) in any case from Arabic sifr "cipher", itself a translation of Sanskrit śūnya "empty place, desert, naught".

  • cipher: late 14th century, from Arabic sifr, "zero", literally "empty, nothing", from safara "to be empty", loan-translation of Sanskrit śūnya "empty". The word "cipher" came to Europe with Arabic numerals. Originally meant "zero", then "any numeral", then (c. 1520s) "coded message". OED: "The Arabic was simply a translation of the Sanskrit name śūnya, literally ‘empty’."

  • nought: variant of naught which means "nothing". The meaning of "zero, cipher" is only from the early 15th century. (?c1425 Crafte Nombrynge in R. Steele The Earliest Arithmetics in English. (1922) 20: "A 0 is noȝt, And twyes noȝt is but noȝt.")

So these sources seem to agree that:

  • In Sanskrit, the word for "empty" (śūnya) was used for zero.
  • Correspondingly when translating into Arabic, the word sifr based on the word safara, meaning "to be empty", was used for zero.
  • For the number in English, cipher and zero were imported from Arabic, but also, similar to the passing from Sanskrit to Arabic, the existing word for "nothing" (nought) was used.
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Note that this use of cipher continues in BrE, where an unmemorable person is sometimes called a cipher. –  WhatRoughBeast Jul 28 at 2:13
It appears in AE, too. The last page of Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude comes to mind. –  Jake Regier Jul 28 at 2:38

The concept of zero as a number and not merely a symbol for separation is attributed to India where by the 9th century AD practical calculations were carried out using zero, which was treated like any other number, even in case of division.[10][11] The Indian scholar Pingala (circa 5th-2nd century BC) used binary numbers in the form of short and long syllables (the latter equal in length to two short syllables), making it similar to Morse code.[12][13] He and his contemporary Indian scholars used the Sanskrit word śūnya to refer to zero or void.

--copied from wikipedia

however it does not say Indians discovered it, it does says they were the practical users

The word "zero" came via French zéro from Venetian zero, which (together with cipher) came via Italian zefiro from Arabic صفر, ṣafira = "it was empty", ṣifr = "zero", "nothing".

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@kosmonaut can you please(i am very humble) tell me what mistake did I do. –  bubble Jun 21 '11 at 12:29
You can see in the revision history that I just put the text from Wikipedia into a blockquote. –  Kosmonaut Jun 21 '11 at 12:41
@Kosmonaut can you tell where do we find the link for revision history. Its not appearing on my screen. –  bubble Jun 22 '11 at 7:06
The Maya also used zero in their "long count" calendars, going back at least to the third century AD, and the Olmecs before them may have had it. So it is possible that mesoamericans discovered it first. However, our western mathematical tradition derived it from the Indians via the Arabs. –  T.E.D. Jun 27 '11 at 18:43

From Leonardo Fibonacci's Liber Abaci (1202):

Novem figure indorum he sunt 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. Cum his itaque novem figuris, et cum hoc signo 0, quod arabice zephirum appellatur, scribitur quilibet numerus, ut inferius demonstratur.

The nine Indian figures are 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. With these nine figures and with the sign 0, that is called zephirum in Arabic, every number can be written, as I shall prove in what follows.

This is where zephirum comes from; it became zero in Italian. Probably, Leonardo used a Latin word as similar as possible to the Arabic one.

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Note the reluctance to give 0 the same status as the other figures: he talks of nine figures and the sign 0, instead of talking of the ten figures. This is a further indication that the idea of 0 as a number encountered resistance (at least psychological), and wasn't really as intuitive and natural as it may seem to us today. –  ShreevatsaR Aug 1 '11 at 17:06
@ShreevatsaR The acceptance of zero as a number came way after Fibonacci. Until the 17th century there were great mathematicians who didn't accept negative numbers other than "tricks for computations". –  egreg Aug 1 '11 at 19:47

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