- Nothing; None at all
- A person or thing of no significance
- No (in reference to quantity or quality)
Zilch can be a useful word when you're talking about nothing at all. After all "nothing or none at all" is the most prominent meaning of zilch today. For example, if you're all out of olives and someone asks you how many are left, you might respond with the singular word "zilch." Here zilch means "none." And if you went driving through a thick fog to buy some more olives, you might mutter to yourself, "I can see zilch!" In this case, zilch means "nothing." Zilch also has an adjective use with this same basic meaning. For example, in response to the earlier question about the absent olives, you could have responded, "There are zilch olives left." In that sentence zilch is acting as a modifier describing how many olives are left (i.e. "There are no olives left").
A less common usage of zilch refers to a person of no significance. The primary usage of zilch refers essentially to the concept of "zero" or "nothing," and zilch as an insult refers to someone who is a "zero" or a "nobody." For example, if you were feeling mean and spiteful, you could dismissively say something like, "Barbara? Oh, don't bother with her; she's just a little zilch of a person." This would mean that Barbara is so unimportant that she might as well be treated as if she does not exist, which is a pretty terrible thing to say! In another example, someone may describe their ex as someone who is zilch to them. We'd all better be careful about employing this second usage of zilch, since it is likely to do more than zilch emotional damage.
Example: My understanding of Neoplatonic philosophy is still pretty much zilch.
Example: I have zilch desire to eat this banana pasta casserole.
Example: "How dare that little zilch of an assistant correct me in public!" fumed Mr. B.L. Owhard.
Zilch entered English in the 1920's or 1930's as a slang term for a person of no significance. The word gained this sense because it was first employed as a generic stand-in for someone's surname (i.e. John Smith or John Doe). Zilch may derive from the actual German-Slavic surname "Zilch," or it may simply have originated as a nonsense name invented in college and theater slang. It gained the meaning of "nothing" in the 1950's.
From Ken Kesey's letter to Allen Ginsberg:
This is just shit. It's happening. No blame. Happening and on the rise it would appear. What can we do to delay it? Probably zilch. To stop it? Likely less. But to survive it? Now that sounds more promising. There is evidence of bad shit having been survived before.
Here, Kesey uses zilch to make the case that the bad things in question cannot be prevented from occurring.
- Remember the catchy phrase "zip, zilch, zero" which means "absolutely nothing!"
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of zilch. Did you use zilch in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.