Null, nil and naught are all synonyms of zero, and to my knowledge, zero is the only number that has this many cognitive synonyms, if not more. Why is this?

Does it have to do with English being significantly influenced by both Germanic and Latin, leading to many synonyms with different historic roots, this number being an example of that? Or are there other factors at play? Zero is more than just a number, it is a concept, the concept of nothing, which would probably warrant many entities putting a name on it; does it have anything to do with that?

  • 11
    You can't think of a single solitary one lone number that has that many synonyms?
    – Laurel
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 19:13
  • 7
    @Laurel I can think or a couple. The pair I have in mind is a real dynamic duo. It took me a while but I hunted them down and strung them up like a brace of pheasants. Or I should say they really dragged me to the truth like a yoke of oxen; nay, speedier, a span of coursers!
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 19:19
  • I can't think of any. There are synonyms for "one", but not the noun "one", only the adjective.
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 19:20
  • @DanBron If I guessed what you were hinting at correctly, then I have to disagree. Duo is not a synonym of two, as duo is two people doing whatever, and two is abstract concept of the number two.
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 19:23
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    @Mitch A dictionary would clear it all up.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 22:34

1 Answer 1


It's not that there are so many words for the digit or number zero, but that there are so many words for 'nothing' which are then associated with the mathematical number.

'Why' is a question we all want to know the answer to, but is often difficult with words. The usual way to deal with it is by turning the question away from causes into description; 'here is the data, it just is'.

Zero, and other numbers, are usually strange grammatically. They're usually adjectives ('five sheep'), and yet also sort of nouns ('Sheep? I have five.' (notice that 'red' or 'hungry' don't fit there). The small numbers all have multiple versions too: one - single, ace, singleton, nonce, loner, two - pair, deuce, double. Zero might be considered special because it really wasn't a 'thing', as a mathematical number, until, let's just pick one to set it, 458 AD in India. But that's a bit of misdirection because 'nothingness', or 'nothing' or 'nought', and separately, 'zero' and 'cypher' have much longer etymological histories than just for a little symbol used in arithmetic.

Given only the recent introduction of that little symbol may be motivation for wondering why it has such a rich vocabulary. But I think that is where the answer lies, in that there is ample historical use of the concept of nothingness, without any kind of specific mathematical notation, that one could expect lots of vocabulary items for 'nothing'.

After all, there are a lot of words for not nothing: much, many, several, a lot, a few, boatloads, numerous, myriad, etc, etc, etc. without having to posit some arcane numerical system (arcane because it was the province, in any society, of the very small set of bean counters; before modern education, literacy was rare, and numeracy even moreso).

The explanation of why there are so many words for 'zero' is really that there are so many words for 'nothing'.

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    I don't think any grammarian would classify numerals as adjectives nowadays. The big question is whether to include them in the quantifier class or not (when they need a class of their own). Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 15:29
  • @EdwinAshworth Ontologically speaking, numerals are much closer to adjectives (as a large inclusive group) than to the other of the classic Latinate parts of speech. Would you be more comfortable if I said 'like adjectives' rather than just 'adjectives'?
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 15:33
  • 'Classically (though not nowadays) designated 'adjectives'? And surely ELU has moved on from the traditional 8 POS's? Though I'm still fighting for 'directional particle' and 'locational particle' in some cases where others lump into '[intransitive] preposition'. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 16:22

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