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:
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 a 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 *aiw–, which 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.