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Zero, Nil, and the Philological Method

There is a rigid distinction between American and British English in the use of the words zero (< French zéro or Italian zero < alteration of Medieval Latin zephirum < Arabic çifr nothing, cipher’) and nil (< classical Latin nīl, contracted < nihil ‘nothing’), whereby the former is favored by Americans and the latter by Britons in designating the lack of a score when tabulating the numerical results of sporting events. This minimal pair of lexis opens out onto a possibly interesting cultural difference and illustrates in nuce what is meant by “the philological method.”

The philological method can be seen at work when, for instance, an art historian looking at a Renaissance painting concentrates on small details of subject and composition (like the folds of the human subject’s dress) in order to discover the work’s iconography; or when a physician posits a diagnosis by analyzing a patient’s symptoms (NB: “symptomatology” is the older name [rooted in ancient medicine] for what is now called “semiotics”). In both examples, what is important to keep in mind is the fact that physical and behavioral features may be both intended and unintended consequences of CHOICES, and thereby reflective of VALUES. Every outward manifestation of the human person (whether linguistic, art-historical, or medical) is a SIGN that is capable of “causing” an interpretation (in the context of a relational network of homorganic signs).

Returning to zero and nil, note that the American word of choice is dissyllabic, the British monosyllabic, i. e., the first is longer than the second. Analyzed in cultural perspective, what we have here is yet another instantiation of the general American tendency toward hypertrophy and the British one toward understatement.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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