Aught and naught, anything and nothing

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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 ("I never gave you aught," Hamlet says to Ophelia, in an especially ungenerous moment, before she goes off and drowns) and Milton ("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:

(1) a. Sam didn't eat anything at the party last night.
(1) b. Sam ate nothing at the party last night.

The second probably sounds more direct or charged than the first, 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) is dependent upon the negation; Sam ate anything at the party last night 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 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 To do aught good never will be our task with 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?)

(2) a. Sam never left his room.
(2) b. 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, in which there is no easy paraphrase 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.

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43 Comments »

  1. Rubrick said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 3:13 am

    You wrote "overly negative" for what I suspect was meant to be "overtly negative" in the graf just below 2).

    (Thanks! I've corrected that. (I had actually done it twice!) —Chris)

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 3:18 am

    For many of us, "aught" as "zero" comes from "thirty-aught-six", .30-06 Springfield rifle ammunition.

  3. Paul D. said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 3:19 am

    I can't say I've met anyone who ever used "aught" to refer to the twenty-ohs.

  4. C. said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 5:38 am

    In my experience, people seem to have settled on either of "the Zeroes" or "the Naughties". I have not heard anyone use "the Aughts".

  5. Nick Z said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 6:58 am

    Is this a dialectal thing? I (BritE) have never heard of the "aughts", or of "aught" meaning "naught". I agree with C. that the past decade is usually called the n(o/a)ughties. But I have a feeling that "zero" is more usually used than "nought" in the States?

  6. Tom said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    I'm a BrE speaker too and have only ever heard "the noughties"; I believe that term's attracted a fair amount of derision but seems to be the best we have. Would like to add that "naught" and "aught" are alive and well in (at least some parts of) Yorkshire, pronounced "nowt" and "owt" respectively.

  7. Sandy Nicholson said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 8:42 am

    Like Nick Z, I’ve grown used to ‘the noughties’ as the standard name for the decade just past. But when the name was first mooted a decade or so ago, just after premature turn-of-the-millennium fever had gripped this country (but let’s not muddy the waters by getting into that discussion here), I did wonder why there wasn’t a known term for the ’00s. Considering decades in the sense of years with all but the last digit being the same, rather than the nth-decade concept (which few will acknowledge let alone celebrate), did people only start to name them (in popular culture) at some point during the 20th century? If not, why wasn’t the term for 1900–1909 reused for 2000–2009? (I got the impression that ‘noughties’ was a new coinage.)

    As another British English speaker, I haven’t come across the use of ‘aught’ to mean ‘naught’ either. And in British English, I think that ‘naught’ (although archaic) is used more widely than in just a single set expression. Note also that there is, of course, a distinction between ‘naught’ (= ‘nothing’, ‘none’) and ‘nought’ (= ‘zero’): I would say ‘nought point five’ (or ‘zero point five’) for 0.5; but I might (in poetic mode) say ‘there was naught but half a cake left’ if 0.5 of the cake had already been consumed. As a parting thought, I suspect that any attempt to introduce ‘nought’ as a variant of ‘oughtn’t’ (so that ‘ought’/‘nought’ would parallel ‘aught’/‘naught’) would come to naught.

  8. dave said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    Surely this question isn't without precedent? Was this not dealt with some 90-100 years ago already, or have we lost all records?

    Also confirming exposure to Nought as a digit, rather than quantity (in the north of England), with Tom's owt and nowt stepping in for non-precise quantities

  9. Faldone said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    I've heard them referred to as "the aughties" but not without the adjective "naughty" stuck in there; "the naughty aughties".

  10. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    Owt and nowt were still alive and well in the north of England last time I noticed.

  11. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    @Nick Z: Yes, it is a dialectal thing. See, e.g., my OUPblog post from aught-seven, "Our Nameless Decade: What 'Aught' We Call It?"

  12. Urban Garlic said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    With respect to the negative concord example from other languages, I'm by no means current with other languages that do this, but the "ne" particle is apparently disappearing from the standard negative construction "ne pas" in French. There's a reference to this in Nadeau and Barlow's "Story of French", and I'm sure I've seen examples elsewhere that I can't now locate.
    I don't know that it diminishes your point, especially, but it's a useful reminder (to me) that all things linguistic are moving targets.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    @Sandy Nicholson: I notice you use the word "say" rather than "write" when distinguishing between naught and nought. Does that mean you pronounce them differently?

  14. Stephen said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    The greater use of "noughties" in Britain is perhaps due to their use of "nought" in other senses where Americans use only "zero" (cf. also the game "noughts and crosses"/tic-tac-toe).

    According to the OED, "noughts" was sometimes used in the decade from 1900 to 1909. Decade-names do seem to be fairly recent, but they were used in the nineteenth century (e.g., the "gay nineties", 1890-99). An essay in this journal from 1853 uses most of the numbers, to refer to decades in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

    http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=livn;cc=livn;q1=nineties;rgn=full%20text;idno=livn0039-12;didno=livn0039-12;view=image;seq=776;page=root;size=s;frm=frameset;

  15. Andrew W said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    These words remain current in Scots too, in the forms "ocht" and "nocht". Phrases with the free-choice meaning like "for ocht A ken" (= for aught I know) don't sound too bad to me.

  16. Brian said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    Surely this question isn't without precedent? Was this not dealt with some 90-100 years ago already, or have we lost all records?

    It was, and my understanding is that they came to much the same conclusion as we did this time around — namely, that there just isn't any really good name to be had. ("Turn of the century" was probably the most popular term.)

  17. Ken Brown said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    Once again, languae Log exposes the depth of my ignorance. I never knew that there were English speakers who thought "aught" meant "naught". "Naught" is still a productive part of the language over here. "Aught" is marginal – but as others have said it survives in dialect, or at least stage dialect, as "owt" and "ocht".

    On television and in the newspapers the first decade of the present century is all but universaly the "noughties" or "naughties" (pun deliberate I assume) It sounds a bit naff to me. I suspect, with no basis in evidence, that when we come to talk about them in the past we will settle on "two thousands" or more likely "twenty hundreds"

    NB in current usage "the eighteen hundreds" often means the whole 19th century but "the nineteen hundreds" are usually just the years from 1900 to 1910. It is not hard to find phrases like "from the nineteen hundreds to the nineteen twenties" on Google, though you also see ones like "from the early 1900s to the mid twentieth century". The search is difficult because people will write things like "1900s" but you can't be sure what they would say.

  18. Robert T McQuaid said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    Referring to the past decade with some version of zero (aught, naught) is inadequate, since every year of this century will have a zero in it. How about the double-0 decade? Alluding to James Bond sounds more exciting than obsolete nineteenth century usage.

  19. Mr Punch said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    @ Nathan Myers – The "aught-six" in .30-06 is 1906, the date of the Springfield rifle in question (in my youth, in cut-down form, the standard New England deer rifle, with enough power to cut through brush). In other words, we've been through this before, a century ago, and chose "aught" — meaning, I think, "zero" rather than "nothing."

  20. Adrian Bailey said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    As has been mentioned, aught and naught are still in common use throughout northern England, usually spoken/swritten owt and nowt. And there is the common expression that something is "neither nowt nor summat" (sometimes rendered as "neither owt nor summat) i.e. neither one thing or the other.

  21. Lemuel Pitkin said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    Why not look at actual usage, rather than trying to invent a new one?

    People frequently call years "oh-three," "oh-seven," etc. Never aught-anything.

    if the years individually referred to as "ninety-one," "ninety-two," and so on are collectively the "nineties", then logically the years individually referred to "oh-one," "oh-two," and so on are collectively the "ohs".

    The same reasoning works for "two thousands", but that's more cumbersome.

  22. Simon Cauchi said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    "Aught" ought not to mean "nothing". It really means "anything", as in William Collins's Ode to Evening, which begins:

    If aught of oaten stop, or pastoral song,
    May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear, . . .

    and continues for another thirteen lines before the reader comes to a main verb.

    (At least, I think "teach" in line 15 is a main verb, but the main verb might in fact be "hail" in line 19.)

  23. messy said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    The proper name of the decade is the 'OOze.

  24. Aaron Davies said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    i remember something in one of the little house books where pa ingalls comments, one new year's, on a decade transition much as we would now—something like "let's hope the eighties will be a better decade than the seventies were". of course, laura didn't actually write that down until the (nineteen) thirties, so she may well have been putting words in his mouth he didn't actually use.

  25. David Crosbie said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

    I forget which blues scholar quoted a rhyme which encapsulated the end-of-season reckoning between a white boss and his black share-cropper:

    An ought's an ought,
    A figure's a figure
    Everything for the white man
    Nothing for …

    I won't attempt to get the end past the software censor.

  26. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    I don't think there's really any clear consensus I've seen on any particular choice, nor does it seem like there will be. Contemporary sources from the early 20th C in the US referred to 1901-1909 individually as "aught-N" most commonly that I've seen, but commonly in 2001-2009 the more common usage was "oh-N", and only "aught-N" in sort of ironic attempts to emulate the last century's usage. But, it looks like so far it's up in the air whether it's the "Naughties", "2000s" or "Ohs", and I doubt there's going to ever be a consensus otherwise, given the collective uncertainty about the "Aughts"/"1900s".

    Chris, I really enjoyed the polarity item breakdown. Thanks!

  27. mollymooly said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 11:24 pm

    I think the practice of using "oh" for "zero" began with telephone numbers, so would not have an option for the period 1900-1909. Nineteen-aught-n is shorter than Nineteen-hundred-and-n, but I doubt many Brits used it at the time or since.

    In the UK, the period largely overlapped with the Edwardian era (1901-1910), which is how it would be referred to since. The US talks about the Victorian era even in relation to its own history, but by the 20th century had stopped paying attention to UK monarchs.

  28. Mary said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 2:03 am

    I have to disagree with Lemuel, above. I remember the first time I had to say aloud that I was in the "class of oh-four" and right there and then I thought "hmm, saying aught-four sounds much nicer." And I tend to render the year itself as "two thousand and four" much like people in the 20th century would have said "nineteen hundred and seven" for 1907.

  29. Fred Wickham said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 2:12 am

    Historically, has it been usual practice to worry about the name of the previous decade immediately after it has ended? Don't these names come about after longer reflection? Does something have to go on the birth certificate now?

  30. Ben said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 2:52 am

    I've heard people call the the decade "twenty-ohs" in actual speech, but this is purely anecdotal, from my own experience and circle of friends. In blogs I've actually seen the decade described most often as the "aughts" but I've also seen the "2000s" and the "20-ohs" (presumably pronounced the "two thousand's" and the "twenty-ohs"). Again, this is anecdotal since it's based on the particular blogs I read.

    And the "n(a/o)ughties" is actually new to my ear–I suppose from the comments above that it's common in British English, but I've not once heard it US English (I've heard it naught in US English?).

    I personally like the "twenty-ohs". It's concise and unambiguous and based on the way people actually say individual year numbers–all the other candidates lack at least one of these features. And I also like the construction is easily extensible to any century (e.g. the nineteen-ohs). The one drawback is that the "ohs" alone (without the century number) is a little awkward, but I think that's only because of the unfamiliarity of the term, not because of something wrong with the actual form.

  31. Alexandra said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 7:26 am

    I personally like the oh-ohs, even though it doesn't make logical sense (at least not if you're drawing analogies to the nineties, eighties, etc.). I just like the way it sounds. Could be a band name.

  32. Ben said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    Actually, when compared to the tens–which I think is somewhat standard–the oh-ohs is kind of analogous.

    It also does sort of make logical sense when you consider that every year from 2000 to 2009 does indeed have two consecutive zeros.

    And it sounds good too. I think you may have swayed me.

  33. Mabon said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    Writing as an American listening to BBC Radio…

    For numbers between zero and one (e.g., 0.7%):UK: "an inflation rate of naught-point-seven percent". US: "an inflation rate of zero-point-seven (or 'point-seven') percent"

    Similarly, a score of 3-0:UK: "three-nil" US: "three to nothing"

    "Naught" and "nil" are seldom used in spoken American English, whether as numbers or otherwise.

    Regarding this past decade, there is some confusion, because the situation is not completely analogous to 100 years ago. Regarding that time, you would say "nineteen-oh-four" — whereas you would most likely say "two thousand and nine", not "twenty-oh-nine" (at least in the US). As the new decade continues, however, I believe it probably will become as common to say "twenty-ten" as "two thousand and ten", and we will revert to the format we used prior to 2000. In other words, the names of the years of this past decade were an anomaly.

  34. John Cowan said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    In Lewis Carroll's collection of mathematical puzzles, A Tangled Tale (1880-81), the fifth "Knot" is called "Oughts and Crosses". When one of his correspondents complained, he wrote: 'I. E. A. [...] takes me to task for using the word "ought" instead of "nought." [...] But does not I. E. A. remember the parallel case of "adder"? That creature was originally "a nadder": then the two words took to bandying the poor "n" backwards and forwards like a shuttlecock, the final state of the game being "an adder." May not "a nought" have similarly become "an ought"? Anyhow, "oughts and crosses" is a very old game. I don't think I ever heard it called "noughts and crosses." ' The OED agrees, and confirms that both terms have been in use since at least the 1860s.

    Ought and aught have been semantically and phonologically identical since at least the Early Modern English period, and indeed are identical in origin, (n)ought being regularly derived from OE and (n)aught the result of anomalous shortening of the original long a during the OE-ME transition. To avoid confusion with the unrelated verb ought and the numeral nought, the (n)aught spellings have been favored in the last two centuries. Naughty also fits here: it meant 'wicked' in EModE, describing someone worth naught.

    Note that naught but survives as nobbut.

  35. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    Lewis Carroll wrote a story called 'Oughts and Crosses'. He claimed, when questioned on this, that he had never heard the game called 'Noughts and Crosses'. I, however, have never heard it called anything else (by Brits. Americans, I believe, escape the problem by calling it 'Tic-tac-toe'.)

    I did once hear an American say 'Aught eight' (or 'Ought eight') meaning 1908, so the use clearly has some history. The Britsh people present were very puzzled.

  36. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    Aargh, crossed on that one. But if both have been used since the 1860's, isn't it odd that Carroll had never heard 'Noughts'?

  37. John Cowan said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 3:49 am

    The earliest OED quotation for noughts and crosses says:

    1864 Littell's Living Age 22 Oct. 182/1 Mr Babbage..has proceeded some way towards the invention of an automaton intended to play at the very simple game called indifferently ‘noughts and crosses’ or ‘tit-tat-to’.

    So apparently the American name, in slightly different form, was equally current at the time; the OED, however, does not list this quotation under the entry for tick-tack-toe (as they spell it), and apart from an ambiguous 1899 quotation, all its quotations for the 'noughts and crosses' sense are American and from 1960 onwards.

  38. John said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    On the changing nature of any:

    I've heard from speakers in North Carolina positive any more: "It rains a lot any more."

    And my son, around age 2-3, hadn't picked up the negation that goes with any, and would use anything to mean nothing, with no other negative marking.

  39. Edward Carney said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    Let us not forget The Music Man, Prof. Harold Hill, Gary Conservatory, "class of ought-five."

  40. Sandy Nicholson said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    @Ellen K.: I clearly wrote my comment a little too early in the morning (for me). Of course, I should have written ‘wrote’ rather than ‘said’. That said (or written), I do think there are at least some dialects that would differentiate the two words in speech as well as in writing. (As they’re different lexemes – in my idiolect at least – I do tend to forget that they’re probably homophonous in my speech.)

    @Mabon: You may have heard ‘naught-point-seven percent’, but BrE writers would almost invariably write ‘nought’ rather than ‘naught’ here. Interestingly enough, the OED’s entry for ‘naught’ has:

    3. a. The figure or character 0, representing zero; = NOUGHT pron. 4. Now chiefly U.S.

    b. U.S. Not any quantity or number, zero; = NOUGHT n. 1c.

    Note the U.S. qualifiers here.

  41. Boris said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    Why don't we use the weathermap template for decades? On most weathermaps the 0's are pronounced "sinlge digits" and 10's are pronounced "teens". Sounds a bit weird for decades, but so does everything else. "I got my college degree back in the single digits". What do you think?

  42. Jim O'Rourke said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    Isn't aught used in the gun world? eg. an aught 6 rifle?
    and in the world of the compass? Where else is aught used? Jim

  43. raz said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 10:48 am

    As has been mentioned, aught and naught are still in common use throughout northern England!

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