Pursuant to my previous question on “Fear Factors” in the article of Financial Times (November 23, 2007) -“The ten things everyone should know about science,” there was the following sentence:

“And what does the future (of the universe) hold? One possibility is that everything will come together again in a Big Crunch, after countless billion of years. But at the moment cosmologist believe it more likely that our universe will expand for ever into a cold, desolate nothingness.”

I was interested in the word, “nothingness” as I don’t think I’ve heard it very often.

Is “nothingness” a day-to-day use English word or an academic or technical word to describe such things as an effect of the Big Crunch as being used here? Or can I use it for everything that doesn’t exist?

How does it differ from other words implying the state of nothing exists, for instances, “Emptiness,” “Void,” “Vanity,” "vacuum,"and “Zero”?

  • 3
    I would say that "nothingness" is similar to "void" in usage. Nov 4, 2012 at 20:40
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    Vanity means (amongst other things) “That which is vain, futile, or worthless; that which is of no value or profit.” It does not mean what those others mean.
    – tchrist
    Nov 4, 2012 at 20:42
  • Overall, emptiness is only about twice as common as nothingness, but "emptiness in her heart" is about 1000 times more common than "nothingness in her heart". But both words, along with void, vacuum etc. [can] mean much the same thing. Nov 5, 2012 at 0:04

3 Answers 3


Nothingness is more of abstract, literary term, something a philosopher or a poet would be more prone to use than a scientist. It's a concept of an entity composed of nothing. The sentence doesn't speak about thermodynamic death, where everything comes to a standstill with no active energy sources left. It speaks about unending expansion that will spread matter so thinly over so big area there will be nothing (no meaningful amounts of it) left. It will be a universe infinitely bigger than current one, with the same, finite amount of matter filling it - spread over infinite distance, so that the vast volume is empty - it's nothingness.

Nothing is a vastly more utilitarian, day-to-day word. It's a joker card for lack of meaningful content. There's nothing in the box - not true, there's air but nobody cares. You worry over nothing - the subject of your worry is unimportant. "Nothing" can be quite big and important but it's beyond our interest.

Emptiness is the content of a volume, or a state of something. While nothingness is an entity, emptiness is its content. It's also a rather philosophical word, and rarely used in its practical meaning - degree of being empty (you don't measure emptiness of a container but its fullness). Much more often you'll find it in its figurative meaning - emptiness of stare, of expression, of thought or quotation (devoid of meaning or importance).

Void is a solid scientific word describing the area between concentration of matter - whatever in the universe isn't stars, planets, meteors, and so on. It isn't entirely empty, and has different properties in different areas depending on the trace amounts of matter it contains. Void also has a common meaning, which is "unnatural lack of something which would normally be there". An emotional void is lack of normal emotions. A void in the market will soon be filled by entrepreneurs.

Vanity is definitely a figurative emptiness - a property of character, being extremely proud but of no real value as a person, lack of virtues.

Zero is a mathematical term, a value describing an amount. Air pressure in void is zero. The count of particles in perfect void is zero. The value of that vain jock in my eyes is zero.

There's also vacuum. Volume with extremely little matter in it. Perfect vacuum does not exist - there will always be some energy, some particles manifesting themselves spontaneously from quantum uncertainty, but generally lack of matter, including air is considered vacuum. It's often used interchangeably with "void", but you won't say that collapsing cistern was filled with void (or "just empty"), there was vacuum in it.

  • I think this is a pretty good summary of the main "differences" - such as they are (apart from vanity, which doesn't really overlap much at all with the others). Nov 5, 2012 at 0:12
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    @FumbleFingers: Vanity describes how hollow a person is. If we include all figurative emptinesses, this one belongs. ;-)
    – SF.
    Nov 5, 2012 at 0:41
  • It's a pretty indirect relationship. I don't think you'd normally find words like hollow and empty in dictionary definitions of vanity, and I'd certainly cry foul if, say, a crossword clue expected me to derive hollow from vain. Obviously there must be some way to connect the words, since OP did it. But I wouldn't be surprised to learn he actually went through something more like vain = unsuccessful = ineffective/powerless = weak = drained = empty. Nov 5, 2012 at 2:20
  • @FumbleFingers: hollow in the sense of trait of character gets "See synonyms at vain" in its Free Dictionary entry.
    – SF.
    Nov 5, 2012 at 7:51

The word nothingness as used in your example implies the absence of any activity — of anything going on. Scientists speak of the "heat death" of the universe, when all matter and energy have been sucked into black holes and the black holes have evaporated (a very, very long time from now).

This is distinct from Sartre's notion of nothingness as proposed in his treatise Being and Nothingness (translated from L’Être et le néant), in which nothingness presents a background on which the human mind projects intellectual constructs — or something like that.

In any case, nothingness is the right word for talking about the end of the universe. Vanity would be wrong for obvious reasons, while it is possible to have a void between objects. Certainly the space between stars may be termed a void. And zero is first and foremost a mathematical concept of nothing, and therefore too abstract to describe the end of everything, although you could say the nothingness in question would represent a state of zero activity.

  • And also, zero has the connotation of absolute zero (that is, the temperature) in this context.
    – Mr Lister
    Nov 4, 2012 at 21:46

Emptiness,” “void,” “vanity” and “zero” are all synonyms of "nothing" in appropriate contexts.

It follows that nothingness is not a synonym of any of them.

It is the state of being in one of them.

Someone who has failed to score any points has a score of zero. His state is one of failure. Some grammarians may want to call this 'renominalization,' forming a noun from a root noun.

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