The name Dreadnought, a class of naval ship, originates from the eponymous HMS Dreadnought. Wikipedia indicates that

Dreadnought's name, and the class of battleships named after her, means "a fearless person"

Its reference for this is

'Dreadnought' in Google Dictionary and Merriam-Webster dictionaries

However, when I google "Dreadnought", Google's dictionary tells me

noun: dreadnought; plural noun: dreadnoughts

  1. (historical) a type of battleship introduced in the early 20th century, larger and faster than its predecessors and equipped entirely with large-caliber guns.

  2. (archaic) a heavy overcoat for stormy weather.

Similarly, Merriam-Webster tells me

dreadnought, noun

1 : a warm garment of thick cloth also : the cloth

2 [ Dreadnought, British battleship ] a : battleship

b : one that is among the largest or most powerful of its kind

It seems to me that the word is composed of two somewhat archaic words, dread and nought. I believe that in this usage, dread means fear, and nought is one variant spelling of the noun naught, meaning nothing. So one might "update" the word to fears-nothing.

However I wonder if that's correct — naught, nought, and not are all homophones, and historically, English spelling hasn't been exactly standardized. The term could be "updated" as Does not fear, from the more archaic Fears not, where not is the adverb.

Which is a more modern form of the word Dreadnought? What more accurately represents the original meaning? Fears-nothing, that the ship fears no other ship in the water? Or Does not fear, that the ship does not fear any other ship?

  • 5
    "Fears-nothing, that the ship fears no other ship in the water? Or Does not fear, that the ship does not fear any other ship?" These two sentences seem to say the same thing as one another . . .
    – David M
    Oct 10, 2019 at 21:22
  • 17
    nought and not are all homophones’, not to me they aren’t.
    – Spagirl
    Oct 10, 2019 at 22:19
  • 2
    @Spagirl Nor to me.
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2019 at 23:10
  • 1
    @DavidM Their meaning is identical, but their grammars are different, which is the crux of my question.
    – user1359
    Oct 10, 2019 at 23:37
  • 2
    Nought and not are homophones only in certain regional accents: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cot%E2%80%93caught_merger Oct 11, 2019 at 12:53

2 Answers 2


As you surmise, dreadnought originates as a compound of dread and nought, and nought is a noun, so the original meaning was something like shies from nothing. But if you will forgive the use of that most tiresome favorite adverb of pretentious Internet commenters, actually, the first English Dreadnought was a Third Rate galleon commissioned during the reign of Elizabeth I, built in 1573.

Dread is relatively straightforward, meaning to fear, shrink from, be reverent of, and similar senses of having apprehension, from Middle English onwards.

Not (sometimes nocht or noht in older works) is an etymological descendent of nought, but by the time dreadnought appears, it was already a distinct word, and dreadnought is not simply a fanciful spelling of dread-not.

As for naught and nought, the OED draws a distinction between the two as their spellings represented distinct pronunciations until the 17th century or so. They are at least fraternal twins, however:

From the Old English period onwards there is no clear distinction in meaning or function between the two words. (naught adj. is attested considerably earlier than the adjectival uses below, but it is unclear whether this is simply an accident of the historical record, or reflects a real distinction in use.) Usage of one word or the other in any given sense varies relatively freely (and sometimes differs between editions of the same work) down to the 20th cent., although some patterns have been enforced by printers and dictionaries. In early modern English the adjectival senses ‘worthless’, ‘bad’, ‘immoral’ were especially associated with naught (compare naughty adj.), although the use of nought was not uncommon.…

In northern dialects nought generally preserved Middle English -o- ; the vowel of the form nowt… generally has the same sound as that of grow, flown, and other words which had a diphthong /ɔu/ in Middle English.

We no longer use nought in the sense it is used in dreadnought, either. According to the OED, it is a count noun for something which does not exist, a use which is marked obsolete and not attested after a 1642 Henry More ode:

Bringing hid Noughts into existencie, Or sleeping Somethings into wide day-light.

That said, dreadnought began to be used as an adjective in later years meaning without fear:

God is our hope, God is our reuenge, & God is dread naught indeede. (1592, William Burton in Dauids Euidenece)

For this, we have no shortage of synonyms, any number of which the Royal Navy has adopted in turn: fearless, dauntless, intrepid, gallant, undaunted, brave, valiant, and so on. (They never learned what the U.S. Navy learned, that abstract qualities do not have legislators and voters who will vote money to build ships named after them).

I would add that the cloth known as dreadnought was contemporaneously known as fearnought, and in fact the earliest OED entry for fearnought predates dreadnought by more than two decades.

  • 2
    "the vowel of the form nowt… generally has the same sound as that of grow …" Agreed, but in some British English dialects it has the sound of now, cow, etc, not grow.
    – alephzero
    Oct 11, 2019 at 10:29
  • Why is "third-rate" capitalized here? Oct 11, 2019 at 20:47
  • @RobertHarvey Because it is a ship of the Third Rate, not just some third-rate ship.
    – choster
    Oct 11, 2019 at 23:11
  • Ah, I see. Is that where the commonly used phrases "first-rate," "second-rate," etc. originated? Oct 11, 2019 at 23:13
  • @RobertHarvey Etymonline says as much.
    – choster
    Oct 11, 2019 at 23:25

Apart from the use as a name for Martin Guitar, I've never seen it refer to anything but the ship.

But the meaning is clearly fears nothing. As Edwin Ashworth points out, nothing is the direct object of fears.

Etymonline tells us:


literally "one who or that which fears nothing," from the verbal phrase (drede ich nawiht is attested from c. 1200); see dread (v.) + nought (n.). As a synonym for "battleship" (1916) it is from a specific ship's name. Dreadnought is mentioned as the name of a ship in the Royal Navy as early as c. 1596, but the modern generic sense is from the name of the first of a new class of British battleships, based on the "all big-gun" principle (armed with 10 big guns rather than 4 large guns and a battery of smaller ones), launched Feb. 18, 1906.


late 12c., "to fear very much, be in shrinking apprehension or expectation of," a shortening of Old English adrædan, contraction of ondrædan "counsel or advise against," also "to dread, fear, be afraid," from ond-, and- "against" (the same first element in answer, from PIE root *ant-) + rædan "to advise" (from PIE root *re- "to reason, count"). Cognate of Old Saxon andradon, Old High German intraten. Related: Dreaded; dreading. As a noun from c. 1200, "great fear or apprehension; cause or object of apprehension." As a past-participle adjective (from the former strong past participle), "dreaded, frightful," c.1400; later "held in awe" (early 15c.).

And yes, as you alluded to, nought is a variant of naught.

Middle English, from Old English nowiht "nothing," variant of nawiht (see naught). Meaning "zero, cipher" is from early 15c. Expression for nought "in vain" is from c. 1200. To come to nought is from early 15c. (become to naught, ycome to naught are from c. 1300).

  • 4
    In'fears nothing' , 'nothing' is a DO, not an adverb. Oct 10, 2019 at 21:39
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth true. My mistake. I'll take it out. This is the danger of answering while distracted.
    – David M
    Oct 10, 2019 at 23:19
  • 1
    Don't text and answer, @DavidM! :-P
    – Vikki
    Oct 11, 2019 at 6:07
  • 2
    @Sean more like, don't edit to add additional info while talking to your kids about something else. 😂
    – David M
    Oct 11, 2019 at 12:43

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