Robert Siegel, the redoubtable National Public Radio host, took to the airwaves yesterday to denounce nil. Or, rather, to denounce “nil” and its

creeping penetration of American English thanks to the World Cup. Nil is a contracted scrap of Latin that survives in a few common bits of American English. We might say the chances of something happening are next to nil. Headline writers always in need of very short words sometimes use nil. But if I said, in the top of the third inning, the Nationals led the Cubs one-nil and then Chicago scored an equalizer the late Harry Carey and Phil Rizzuto [both baseball announcers] would both shout, “Holy cow!” in their graves.

As readers of this blog know, the “creeping penetration” of British soccer terminology is a rich subject, covered most recently here. On the “nil” question, Siegel, to his credit, didn’t just fulminate but brought in an expert, Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. She added some historical perspective:

…in the beginning of the 20th century the way that Americans talked about soccer was not that different from the way that British people talked about soccer. And they used nil sometimes to describe a score. But we lost the knack for talking professionally about soccer during soccer’s decline over the course the 20th century and now I think that our journalists are picking it up on the fly. And there’s an uncertainty about where does British-English end and soccer terminology begin. Most people wouldn’t think it was odd, I think, to say extra time rather than overtime. That’s just how you talk about soccer.

Siegel’s other guest, an announcer for a Major League Soccer team, would have none of this. “I don’t use the term nil,” he said, “because when I say I’m going to the men’s room I don’t say I’m going to the loo.”

26 thoughts on ““Nil”

  1. “Nil” has been used in America (and around the world) in a completely different context since about 1939, in the sentence, “Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.”

  2. Picking it up “on the fly.” I like that expression. And I’m not taking the piss.. Anyway. We used to use the word in hospitals here in the UK when prior to surgery, the nurses would put signs up above a patient’s bed saying “nil by mouth” or at least they did years ago. I wonder if that was done in North American hospitals? I suppose I could just make a call .. OK! I’ll shut up now

  3. I’m puzzled. If the announcers don’t say the score was one-nil, what do they say? One-zero?

    1. Should have posted here instead of down below:

      Usually “one to nothing.” Nil is completely unknown in baseball, football, etc. Zero would be used rarely, but more so than nil.

    1. Interesting! Is that in England? Lately, some English counties have actively discouraged the use of Latin etc., abbreviations as it suggests ?elitism. I think I have heard e.g., N.B. Etc. are examples of those which are not to be used. I may however have heard this on April 1 .. So it would not surprise me that a hospital management might discourage the use of “nil” on the ward.

  4. “I don’t use the term nil,” [Mr Siegel’s other guest] said, “because when I say I’m going to the men’s room I don’t say I’m going to the loo.”

    Here’s news for you, neither do gentlemen in the UK. In old England town, unless we are so crude as to specify the precise bodily function planned, we mutter that we are headed for any number options including gents, khazi, john, fluker, p*sser, bog or jakes – or occasionally (if modest or of royal blood) the lttle boys’ room.

    But there again, in polite society, other than in extremis, one does not proclaim one’s defecatory intentions. Strangely, we Brits tend to regard specification of the gender of proposed lavatory as redundant; particularly if we are in the middle of the Sahara Desert, in the basket of a hot air balloon or swimming the Channel.

    Love it!

    1. “Here’s news for you, neither do gentlemen in the UK.”
      Of course they do. My husband and other male relatives and friends say it all the time.

      Mind you, they also use most of the other words you suggest, except for ‘john’ which I would consider an Americanism and have never heard said by a Brit.

  5. And if you are watching at the moment Germany are beating Brasil 6 nil in the World Cup semi final

    1. Nil desperandum. Fortunately, Germany allowed Brazil to score one goal to avoid future linguistic conflict when discussing the match in the English-speaking world.

      1. That was very decent of the German team. I lost interest at 6-0 and ….. fell asleep I think?..

  6. Michelle Ann: Usually “one to nothing.” Nil is completely unknown in baseball, football, etc. Zero would be used rarely, but more so than nil.

  7. P.S. I think many Americans perceive nil as specialized soccer terminology, like “love” in tennis. But surely it is not used in non-English-speaking countries, correct?

    1. I don’t think of it being specifically a football term. I think in any game where one side or player has not scored I’d use nil. (And indeed, if watching a baseball game I’d think of the score as one-nil, say.) The big game in England at this time of year of course is cricket but in that it would be highly unlikely, except in some ad hoc school game, for a side to score no runs, so it never arises. However, there is the term “a duck” for a batter who fails to score in his innings. (And I know that Americans are confused that in cricket, the singular of innings is innings.)

      But as to non-English-speaking countries, they use they use their own language, of course. I’ve just come back from Germany and I think the German for nil is “null”, which also means zero, but I’m not sure I heard it spoken, and written down it tends to be in numerals – 1-0.

      1. I meant that most Americans who say “nil” in soccer believe they must do so in order to avoid being considered unclassy by the Europeans.

      2. Germans speakers will say 1-0 as eins-zu-null, which is analogous to one-to-nothing.

        Latins will say “zero”

        The BBC made a point of writing the score
        Brazil 1 Germany 7 (seven)

        They used to do this when the footie results were teletyped, unusual scores were written out to assure the viewers that it wasn’t a misprint.

      3. In cricket, the word ‘nought’ is also used a lot. E.g. a bowler will be said to have taken ‘0-29′ (pronounced ”nought for 29’) if he/she hasn’t taken any wickets but has had 29 runs scored against him/her. That’s in the UK of course – in Australia and New Zealand they say 29 for nought. But they get things upside down there.

        You will also hear ‘Cook is still on nought’ meaning the batsman has yet to score, and so on. So we never say nil or love or zero in cricket.

        Incidentally, ‘batter’ has gained ground instead of ‘batsman’, but the latter has always been used for male and female players.

      4. There is also the term when out for a duck:
        “He did not trouble the scorers.”

  8. It is interesting that you should use the phrase “British soccer terminology” here of all places. In British English the sport is football, not soccer. The use of the word soccer was common in Britain thirty or forty years ago, but it is not used today.

    So thee is no British soccer terminology, only British football terminology.

  9. Nil is just what you use in Soccer/Football. It’s the correct term. You wouldn’t say that a football team was winning “one love” and you wouldn’t say that a tennis player was in the lead “thirty nil”. Baseball, Basketball and American Football no doubt also have their own terms. So if you adopt Football/Soccer, use the correct scoring term.

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