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.”