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What's the origin of the word "zilch" and how it came to mean nothing?

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    OED says "origin uncertain", and (unlike many other entries where they say that) they don't even give any possible etymologies. I'd guess (wildly) it's Yiddish/German. From 1958 - In POW lingo, they got zilch Jan 1, 2013 at 18:11
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    Etymonline, anyone?
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 1, 2013 at 18:18
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    A few minutes in Google books finds a 1956 attestation, which seems earlier than either OED or etymonline. Jan 1, 2013 at 18:59
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    If it comes from Yiddish/German, what would the original Yiddish/German word be? Jan 1, 2013 at 19:00
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    @Peter Shor: I didn't mean I thought it was actually a Yiddish word used by German Jews - if that had been the case presumably OED would have identified the original without any real problems. I just meant the sound of it seems to me to be consistent with it having been coined by Yiddish speakers. Jan 1, 2013 at 20:28

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This website says

Robert Hendrickson says “zilch” goes back to the 1920s when the name “Joe Zilch” was used to mean “a good for nothing college boy” – someone who was a waste of space.

Looking through Google books, “Joe Zilch” certainly seems to have been used in that way. It would be quite a coincidence if these two usages of "zilch" were unrelated. And unless someone can find an early attestation for "zilch" meaning "nothing", it would appear that "Joe Zilch" came first.

From 1925:

Such men as Joe Zilch, Joe Mulch, Joe Collitch, Samuel Hall, and Others have been members of this Paternity. ... Said to be Very Exclusive, absolutely refusing to take in others than Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Negroes, Mohamadens, S. C. A's, Westerners, and Round Table boys.

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Stumbled upon the post and decided to post quick update from Etymonline:

zilch (n.) "nothing," 1957; "insignificant person," 1933, from use of Zilch as a generic comical-sounding surname for an insignificant person (especially Joe Zilch). There was a Mr. Zilch (1931), comic character in the magazine "Ballyhoo," and the use perhaps originated c. 1922 in U.S. college or theater slang. Probably a nonsense syllable, suggestive of the end of the alphabet, but Zilch is an actual German surname of Slavic origin.

The [Cadence] agency aims to have each album cover actually promote the record, on the theory that "the day of pretty, boffy, zoomy and zingy covers for the sake of zilch is no more." ["Billboard," Oct. 28, 1957]

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=zilch

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Maybe it was from Yiddish-German, from the Slavic side. I think it may have originated from that useless cure all, zhelch, which is Slavic for bile.

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  • Hello Thomas. This is potentially a very good answer. Could you provide a reference? That is always helpful to provide good answers.
    – Karlomanio
    Jan 10, 2020 at 16:05
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The predecessor expression, "Joe Zilch," a placeholder name for a generic or insignificant person, appears to have been derived from the Vaudeville act of a comedian named Frank Tinney. A man named Joseph Zilch was married to Ida May Chadwick, who performed on stage with Tinney. Tinney used the name to refer to characters in his bits who were mentioned but did not appear on stage. His first use of the name may have been in 1918, although the earliest contemporary reference to the name in print is from 1922.

But the high peak of the evening is when [Tinney] comes on with Marion Sunshine and sings the sad romance of “The Coachman and the Widow.” This sweet ballad has a rather involved scenario about a widow who is driving away from the burial services of her husband (the late Joseph Zilch) when, in the coachman she recognizes an old sweetheart of hers.

New York Times, August 27, 1922, section 6 (Drama, Music, Fashion), page 1.

The practice of using that name was picked up by newspaper columnists. Nunnally Johnson, who later wrote the screenplay to the Dirty Dozen, used the name as early as 1923. The entertainment reporter, Walter Winchell, wrote a column entitled "The Diary of Joe Zilch," as early as 1926. The humor magazine famously used the last-name Zilch for a variety of characters beginning in 1931.

In a 1932 column, Walter Winchell attributed the name to Tinney, and explained how it started.

Wonder if Ida May Chadwick’s husband has any legal right to halt the joshing of his real name – which is Joe Zilch? Funny how that clowning began. Ida was part of a show in which Frank Tinney starred and the Zilchs honeymooned with the troupe. And one dull matinee Tinney found the audience very difficult to amuse – and for want of something funnier to say to cover up a flop quip – he spied the groom sitting in a box and exclaimed: “Ah! My friend Joe Zilch is with us!” . . . This enticed a wow response, they say . . And the comedian ‘kept it in” – getting roars with the name wherever he appeared . . . Today the tag is among the glorified with one humor magazine [(presumably Ballyhoo)] cashing in most heavily with it.

Nevada State Journal (Reno), April 22, 1932, page 4.

"Zilch" standing alone, with its current meaning, is attested as early as 1954.

The latest okay slang word among sports in the Maryland Air National Guard is “zilch,” which means “nothing.”

The Evening Sun (Baltimore), July 5, 1954, page 27.

I posted a more thorough look at the origin of "Joe Zilch" and "zilch" on my Early Sports 'N Pop-Culture History Blog.

[Nancy Friedman posted a follow-up piece focused on "zilch" as a trade name for various products]2. Her post includes a good summary of my findings, and includes the definition of "zilch" from the Dictionary of American Slang (1960, revised edition 1967):

A completely dull, ineffectual, unattractive or insignificant person.