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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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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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 '14 at 19:30
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    How are these words related to railway stations? – svick Feb 17 '14 at 21:34
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    Not to railway stations, but to Bahnhof. It's an idiom in German: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. – John Lawler Feb 17 '14 at 22:04

As a translator I now have reason to believe that the term "zip", at least, was only just coming into wide use around the early or mid-1970s. I have a Slovenian translation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's sequel to "All the president's men", called "The final days". At one point in 1974 the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous (8-0) ruling that Nixon must release all the tapes - a major blow to his hopes of staying in power. On hearing the news, one of his White House aides rushed past his secretaries saying - in the Slovenian translation - "Osem - čik!" The first word means "Eight", and the second is a vague sound that could be taken as meaning "clunk!", "bang!" or "thump!" (its only real meaning is "cigarette butt", but that would mean nothing here). One of the secretaries called after him "Kaj pomeni 'čik'?" - "What does 'čik' mean?" This got me wondering what the aide had said in English. I didn't have a copy of the original English version, but soon found the relevant passage on the Internet: "Eight - zip!" (clearly referring to the 8-0 ruling), to which the secretary replied "What does 'zip' mean?" I concluded that by 1974 some Americans were already using "zip" in the meaning "nothing", but that some other Americans didn't yet know that meaning - also that the Slovenian translator was not (yet) familiar enough with English to pick up the new meaning, and had mistaken "zip" for a vague sound, hence the translation "čik" rather than some word for "nothing". Working in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1970s he also might not have had much contact with the latest American slang - and he also needed to account for why the secretary had failed to understand her boss, so a word with a clear meaning would not have made sense. All this would seem to pin down the rise and spread of "zip" = "nothing" to the early or mid-1970s.

On reflection, it's also possible that the translator did understand the new meaning of "zip" but was unable to find a contemporary Slovenian slang word for "nothing" that some people would understand and but others would not - so, to account for the secretary's failure to understand her boss, he turned "nothing" into a meaningless sound that would leave her puzzled, forcing her to ask what it meant. If so, this was a very skillful piece of translation! But he could simply have omitted her question - so I'm inclined to think that, like the secretary in Washington, he really didn't understand what "zip" meant.

In any case, it still looks as if the meaning of "zip" was very new at the time in English.

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  • No, it is much older. Early sixties, if not before. That a Slovenian translator might not have heard of it at that time is not good evidence that it wasn't common in some places (e.g. the US). – Drew Jun 27 '17 at 16:31
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