In British football if neither team scores a goal, the score is said to be: nil-nil or nil-nil draw. Curiously, the winning team's results are always spoken first. So if Arsenal are playing home the score will be written as: Arsenal 0 Manchester Utd 1 but when spoken: "Manchester Utd 1, Arsenal nil" or "Arsenal lost 1 nil".

I know that nil is derived from Latin nihil, which means nulla, niente in Italian, and nothing in English but why wasn't the Old English nowiht (nought) preferred? Could it be that the game was first introduced into Britain by the Romans, and the Latin term nihil, stuck? There is a short reference in Wikipedia which claims:

Certainly the Romans played ball games, in particular, Harpastum. There is also one reference to ball games being played in southern Britain prior to the Norman Conquest.

There are sources that claim the forefather of modern football is calcio fiorentino played in 15th century Florence, which suggests that the sport had continued to be played in Italy long after the fall of the Roman empire.

To further back up my hypothesis, English football is not alone in using the term nil. The French and Dutch say nul; the Greeks, nil; the Russians, ноль (nol); the Swedes, noll; the Norwegians and Germans, null, and the Hungarians nulla. Surprisingly, the Italians use the term zero, and the Spanish, cero.

  • Am I therefore correct in thinking the Latin-derived term nil is used in British football because of the Roman conquests?

  • If not, what is the history of nil, a word I barely, if ever, hear outside the realm of football? When was it first introduced in British football (soccer)?

  • The nul- and nol- versions probably derive from L null-, 'no', 'none' or 'nothing', not L nil. May 3 '14 at 23:19
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    You missed an opportunity there in the last paragraph by not calling it "null-hypothesis". Dec 13 '17 at 11:06

I think this very unlikely.

OED 1 did not find nil used at all in English texts before 1833, and Google Books shows only a few instances before that date, mostly in tables of values.

In a set of quick-and-dirty Google Books searches, the earliest uses I find of football scores being reported with nil date from the 1870s. (To be sure, the 1870s is the earliest time I find football scores reported at all.) In that decade, the failure to score at all is also reported as "to nothing" and "to none".

I think it most likely that nil came into play because the scores which earned the dignity of print were those played by schools, in an age when every scholar was called upon to be proficient at both games and Latin.

  • OED3 has it in a combined "nothing, no amount, zero (now freq. in scoring at sporting matches, etc)" going back to (only) c1550 (discussing a salary: "And his lyvinge besides is nil"). First sporting use only in 1919.
    – Hugo
    May 5 '14 at 7:11
  • @Hugo The 1550 doesn't surprise me; nil is all over the place in legal tags. But I found lots of earlier sporting uses. May 5 '14 at 10:17
  • Are there other sports which use nil for scores? I can't think of any offhand.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 6 '14 at 20:12
  • Rugby also uses nil.
    – user24964
    May 14 '14 at 10:31
  • Considering the FA was only formed in 1863, and that began to fomalise the game, there wouldn't be many football scores actually reported before 1870.
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 22 '15 at 22:59

Nil is used in other situations as well in the UK: "Nil By Mouth" springs to mind as an example. Nil is also a short easily spoken word and I guess it might be more easily heard on long- short- and medium wave radio than 'zero'; perhaps it was adopted by BBC producers for that reason - back in the day were almost all Oxbridge graduates!

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