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.