In a movie that I watched recently, I heard-
- for aught I know,
- for aught I care.
I work with a lot of native speakers, and they all told me it's not in formal or informal usage anymore.
What's the ground reality?
Yes, it survived, but it is commonly spelled owt.
An alternative meaning is "zero" (derived from nought.) This meaning is used when naming rifle cartridge sizes, and in Norfolk. citation needed, and see @WS2 's answer.
It remains current in Northern English with the newer, apparently 19th century, spelling of owt (Again in Oxford but not Chambers.) There it retains the meaning of "anything", opposite of nowt ("nothing".) As you can imagine, the pronunciation is slightly different.
For example, you'll find it in the so-called Yorkshire motto:
"‘Ear all, see all, say nowt. Eat all, sup all, pay nowt.
And if ever thou does owt fer nowt – allus do it fer thissen" BBC America
You can hear it used regularly on British drama series such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale, and the long-running sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (thanks @Pharap ) though I'll leave it to others to source quotations for you, but you can infer that it is understood by their audiences of millions of native speakers.
Here, Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan uses owt in a 2014 article in a regional newspaper. You can see by the way he uses it that Northern dialect is more often spoken and informal. ''Grappling to get to grips with an alien language'' by Ian McMillan
Update: According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL), there are also current Scots, Scottish English and Orcadian versions of aught (anything): ocht, ochts, oucht, owt, och. DSL has several quotations from the 20th century and earlier. Surprisingly to me, it lists four further meanings listed: a somebody, either, any, somewhat.
Second update Chambers and Oxford dictionaries trace the "anything" meaning of aught / owt to Old English awiht meaning "any person." (Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary entry)
I have added above that the alternative spelling of ought means both "zero" and "anything".
The ground reality is that a few well educated speakers will understand what this word means, most native speakers will be able to correctly guess the word's meaning from context, but very few people will ever actually use it in formal or informal speech.
However, "for naught" appears in the idiom: "It was all for naught", which is more commonly used.
It's one of those words that has fallen out of people's active vocabulary, but still remains in the passive vocabulary. In other words, you will not hear someone use "aught" in that sense, unless they are deliberately trying to sound old-fashioned for a dramatic or poetic effect. However, if someone did choose to use the word (again, most likely for dramatic or poetic effect), most people would understand what was meant. There are plenty of other archaic words like this, such as "betwixt" or "erelong," that people don't actually use in everyday speech but recognize nonetheless because they've seen them in movies, literature, etc.
The word "aught", it appears now survives mainly in the fixed expressions:
-for aught I know, for aught I care.
The presence of the modal verb -ought-may have been a factor to put aught into restricted use.
This blog from vocabulary.com- Your Head Will Spin: "Naught," "Aught," and "Ought", may provide further insights.
The Yorshire use of owt and nowt for aught and naught, to which other responders have referred, is interesting.
The position in Norfolk is quite different. We retain nought, to mean nothing or zero, but we drop the 'n', so it is pronounced ought or orte. It sounds like aught but in fact it is the opposite.
In Norfolk they talk about the game of oughts and crosses.
It would appear that Norfolk has, like Received English, lost the use of aught for anything.
It seems to me to emphasise that the great linguistic divide in England runs in virtually a straight line from the Severn estuary to the Wash. Norfolk (which paradoxically is north of the Midlands) bears more in common with Hampshire, both linguistically and culturally, than it does with Lincolnshire - a county of the North.
Use of 'aught' to mean 'anything' is officially archaic according to Oxford Dictionaries.
(As a variant spelling of 'ought' from 'nought', meaning the digit '0', it's still alive in American English).
But: see Qsigma's answer about 'owt', they're totally right.
First time posting, but I wanted to point out the usage of the similar word owt (same meaning, different spelling/pronunciation) is common use in colloquial terms in Yorkshire, Northern England.
Pronoun - owt (Northern England) aught, anything
Noun owt (uncountable) (Northern England) anything
Adverb owt (not comparable) (Northern England) anything
In Canadian usage "aught" had no meaning of "all" or "any" but rather "little," "an insignificant quantity" or a zero synonym, particularly in the first nine years of a century.
For example, my fathers generation would refer to "aught 9" or even "nineteen aught nine."
In Canada, "for aught I care" would not mean "for all I care," but "for so little I care." A small difference but a real one.
"Aught" is also subtly different from "naught" which continues in use, albeit uncommonly, to mean actually nothing. Not a small amount, but no amount at all.
Perhaps the contrast can best be seen in the "care" example.
"For aught I care..." versus "I care naught."
The first means I care very little. The second means I care not at all.
I have heard, recently, a television news reporter characterizing the efforts of a politician as being "all for naught." His meaning was not "all for very little," nor as a substitute for a numeric zero. Rather he meant that the efforts were "all for nothing."
I've also heard it in "there's naught to be done for him."
I am confident that the vast majority of Canadian English speakers would immediately recognize the usage and meaning of "naught" without finding the transaction discomforting. "Aught," if understood at all, by context or education, would be awkward, uncomfortable for the ear.
Did a Google Ngram, with for me a surprising result.
It would imply that "aught" is dying, but not quite dead yet. Nevertheless, much commoner than "owt" in the corpus used.
I'd note that the change in status of regional dialects in recent years might mean that results in 2015 are substantially changed from the Ngram end date of 2000.
Beware the two polar opposite meanings of aught:
1. Originally, aught was 'a concise and poetic near-synonym for "anything" that has for centuries well served writers, including Shakespeare'
2. However, a more recent meaning of aught is: "nothing," "zero," or "cipher". [This] 'is a nineteenth-century corruption of the word "naught," which actually does mean nothing.'
The following is the source of the quotes above, and explains the semantic drift behind 2: how aught evolved to mean naught. For readability, I edit slightly and don't use blockquotes
In the current (Jan 4, 2010) issue of The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead has a comment that is partly about what to call the previous decade:
Arguably, a grudging agreement has been reached on calling the decade "the aughts," but that unfortunate term is rooted in a linguistic error. The use of "aught" to mean "nothing," "zero," or "cipher" is a nineteenth-century corruption of the word "naught," which actually does mean nothing, and which, as in the phrase "all for naught," is still in current usage. Meanwhile, the adoption of "the aughts" as the decade’s name only accelerates the almost complete obsolescence of the actual English word "aught," a concise and poetic near-synonym for "anything" that has for centuries well served writers,
including Shakespeare (6. "I never gave you aught," Hamlet says to Ophelia, in an especially ungenerous moment, before she goes off and drowns)
and Milton (7. "To do aught good never will be our task / But ever to do ill our sole delight," Satan declares near the beginning of "Paradise Lost," before slinking up to tempt Eve).
I don't know whether Mead is right that we've settled on the aughts, and I won't comment directly on whether anyone has committed any errors. Instead, I'll try to explicate why a word like aught might take on senses close to that of nothing.
Let's start with some clear cases from today's Standard English:
1a. Sam didn't eat anything at the party last night.
1b. Sam ate nothing at the party last night.
1b probably sounds more direct or charged than 1a, but the two make the same claim about the world. They differ only in where the negation is expressed: on the auxiliary in (1a) and on the direct object in (1b). Moreover, there is a sense in which the any-form in (1a) (ie: ANYthing) is dependent upon the negation; 1a is highly marked. (In thinking about the negation-free cases, take care not to sneak in a modal like would. This changes things; see (4) below.)
In Mead's Hamlet example, aught seems to be an any-type form. Hamlet said [in 6 above]
I never gave you aught.
If he cared only about truth conditions, he might have been just as happy with
I gave you naught.
Milton's example has a contrastive structure that is ruined by paraphrase, but we can compare
7. To do aught good never will be our task
To do naught good (always/ever) will be our task.
One might go so far as to say that naught incorporates a negation that comes unglued in aught structures. This isn't transparent for anything and nothing, but it's clear for ever and never (neg-ever?)
2a. Sam never left his room.
2b. Sam didn't ever leave his room.
Thus, Standard English any forms seem not to be overtly negative, but they associate closely with negation. Some any forms are morphologically negative, though. In many English dialects, (3) expresses the same basic proposition as is expressed in (1), and all English speakers can perceive this meaning easily even if their dialects don't support it in production.
(3) Sam didn't eat nothing at the party last night.
In (3), we have negative concord. In a sense, nothing means anything. It's considered nonstandard in English, but it is enormously popular across these United States, and it is basically the only way to go in Italian, Spanish, Afrikaans, Russian, Greek and Hungarian (to name just a few). So, arguably, we humans are quite prepared to get confused about the distinction between anything and nothing.
In the above examples, it works pretty well to paraphrase anything as something. There can be interference from the fact that something is unhappy in the scope of negation, so that Sam didn't eat something sounds like there is some particular thing that Sam didn't eat (though he might have eaten lots of other things), but, if you summon your inner logician, then the existential paraphrases start to sound reasonable.
Not so for examples like (4).
(4) Sam will eat anything.
Here, outside the scope of negation but inside the scope of the modal will, the any form takes on a more universal sense. This doesn't mean merely that Sam will eat something, but rather that he is indiscriminate — name a food and he'll eat it. It is tempting to resort to paraphrases involving universals like everything, but these tend not to capture precisely what anything expresses in these free-choice contexts.
Sometimes, it's hard to know which kind of any form the speaker had in mind. I bet you can get your mind-brain to flip back and forth between the two senses in both of the examples in (5), which I lifted from Horn's Airport '86 revisited.
(5) a. Can anyone pass that test? (Just anyone? / Anyone at all?) (5) b. If anyone can swim the English Channel, I can.
We have good evidence that this sense of aught existed pre-19th century as well. Barbara Partee found a lovely example in 'On Chloris being ill' by Robert Burns (who I assume is too early to be among the offenders Mead has in mind with her "nineteenth-century corruption"):
Hear me, Powers Divine! Oh, in pity, hear me! Take aught else of mine, But my Chloris spare me!
David Beaver turned up free-choice examples in Shakespeare, including for aught he knew and variants, [...] [which can't be easily paraphrased] with modern-day anything but which seem to have universal-like interpretations roughly like for all he knew. In addition, David and Mark Liberman found aught in the tricky environments (e.g., conditionals, comparatives) that vex semanticists working on these polarity sensitive phenomena, thereby further supporting the notion that aught was (and is) an any-type form. Since any-forms are sometimes overtly negative (as in negative concord structures) and often require the presence of negation, it seems unsurprising that they would occasionally incorporate negations as part of their lexical meanings.