nought

Last post, we read into dread, inspired by the “fear-nothing” dinosaur, Dreadnoughtus. This post, we’ll stare straight into the void: nought, “nothing,” and perform a little magic in the act.

Nought So Simple

For nought, we might as well begin with not, because that’s what it became. And to put it simply, it’s not quite so simple. I made a diagram to, er, help us out:

"Not so simple." Diagram by me.
“Nought so simple.” Diagram by me.

In short, not is reduced from nought, which comes from the Old English nowiht. This word joins ne (“not”) and owiht (anything, or “something,” not related to I ought to start exercising). Owiht is, in turn, composed of o, “ever” or “a,” and wiht, a “thing,” “creature,” or “being.” So, on a literal level–and not that words ever really behave so–not means “not a thing.” And so we pull a rabbit out of the hat: In talking about nothing, we find something.

Nowiht to nought to not, with a labyrinth of alternate spellings in between? Kind of crazy, huh? This is all about economy of speech, and we see it everyday. Why do you think we say gonna for going to 

Naughty, Knotty Roots

Nought is considered a variation of naught, which arises like nought. In naught‘s case, the Old English nawiht still features ne but along with awiht (source of “aught,” a variant of ought). Awiht puts that same wiht together with a, a variant of o.

In its earliest uses in the 14th century, naughty meant “poor” or “needy.” It later evolved to “bad,” then “wicked,” then narrowing to describe disobedient children as “misbehaving” and “mischievous.” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology & Eric Partridge)

Even the English no is complex, from the Old English na, merging ne with to emphasize its no-ness as “not ever.”

Speaking of no, the Old English ne is from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *ne, “not,” pervasive across PIE daughter languages, including the English prefix un-. Wiht gives English whit–as in “not a whit”–and wight, from PIE *wekti, a “thing” or “creature.” And o and a? These are from *aiwwhich the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots defines as “vital force, life, long life, eternity.”

Yes, no means “no”–but etymologically speaking, there’s a whole lot more going on.

m ∫ r ∫

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13 thoughts on “nought

  1. The old saying is now fraught with meaning–“what is it about No you don’t understand?” A great deal, apparently. Thanks for another fascinating post! 🙂 (I particularly enjoyed seeing the link between naught and nought)

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    1. Thanks! A great deal, indeed: “Nought” is fraught.

      Person A: What is about “no” you don’t understand?
      Me: Well, etymologically speaking…

      I’d love to see how that would go over!

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  2. “Owt” and “nowt” are the British predominately Northern England dialect version of ‘anything’ (owt) and ‘nothing’ (nowt) eg. “there’s nowt so queer as folk” – ‘Nothing is as strange as people can be’.

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      1. Probably is the origin of the phrase which I used for an example mainly because it’s found its way into colloquial English along with “(you don’t get) owt for nowt” (you don’t get something for nothing.) Although Northern English isn’t my dialect, I would say /aʊ/ generally covers the pronunciation of the /ow/ for the various Northern dialects of Lancashire, the Yorkshires and Cumbria whilst the further you get to Scotland & the North East English regions of Northumbria, Tyneside etc. it would probably sound more like “oot” & “noot”?

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      2. Tricky things, these vowels are. Thanks for the clarifications! And yeah, though I’m certainly no expert, I would predict a lengthening, yielding something more like “oot” and “noot.”

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