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A Column about Nothing

In a couple of months, the word authorities – the major dictionaries, the American Dialect Society, and language bloggers – will select their words of the year for 2016. I have no inside line on what those words will be; indeed, in past years, the winners have surprised me. (Singular "they," anyone?)

I have, however, been giving some thought about the number of the year.

It's zero.

That's right: Naught. Nil. Zip. Nothing.

Skeptical? Take a look at some news items from 2016 that support my case:

  • Zero K, a novel by the American literary star Don DeLillo, was published in May. The title refers to "zero degrees Kelvin," also known as absolute zero, the temperature at which atoms stop moving. In the novel, a mysterious organization preserves bodies through cryonic freezing.
  • The documentary thriller Zero Days, about the self-replicating computer malware called Stuxnet, was released in July. In computer lingo, a zero-day vulnerability is a security hole that can be exploited by hackers before the software vendor becomes aware of it: the vendor has zero days in which to repair the flaw.
  • The spread of the Zika virus spurred researchers to hunt for "patient zero," defined as the initial patient in an epidemiological investigation. A movie titled Patient Zero, about a fictional pandemic, will be released in 2017.
  • A "disruptive banking platform" called Zero Financial was launched in San Francisco. "Zero" may seem like an odd choice for a finance company, but the company name is backed by a "zero compromises" slogan.
  • Across the bay from my home, the city of San Francisco launched a year-long speeding crackdown as part of its Vision Zero policy ("zero traffic deaths by 2024").

One more data point: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database displays 2,495 live trademarks containing zero. More than 500 of them – that is, a full 25 percent – were registered in 2015 and 2016 alone. They include Miss Zero eyeglasses, Zero City clothing, Dr. Zero cosmetics, Zero Grain pet food, Zero Bik cycling apparel, Zerotouch voice-to-text software, and a workplace safety campaign called Why Not Zero?

Zero is a synonym for "nothing," of course, but its value in branding – and in English idioms – is often positive. The name of the Sub-Zero Freezer Company, founded in 1945, suggests extra-low temperatures. (There are also an unrelated Sub Zero ice cream company, based in Provo, Utah; and a Sub Zero liquid for e-cigarettes.) A restaurant called Zero Zero, which opened in San Francisco in 2010, takes its name from the finest grain of flour, known as "00." Coke Zero, introduced in 2005, contains zero sugar or calories, a boon for dieters and diabetics. And Zeroth, a platform for "brain-inspired learning" from telecommunications company Qualcomm, appropriates the ordinal form of zero to create what one reviewer called a "vaguely sinister" brand name that may reference the zeroth law of thermodynamics ("if two thermodynamic systems are each in thermal equilibrium with a third, then they are in thermal equilibrium with each other").

Zero has enjoyed a special status for centuries. The mathematical concept of zero, developed in India between the fifth and seventh centuries C.E., made higher mathematics possible. The word zero first appeared in English around 1600, when it was imported from French; its ultimate linguistic source is the Arabic sifr, from which we also derive cipher.

In branding, zero derives some of its magic from that zippy initial Z and some from the mysterious, desirable Zen of nothingness. The perfect oval of a zero is appealing visually as well.

Sometimes a zero is so captivating that it shows up in multiple contexts with dramatically divergent meanings. That's the case with Generation Zero and zero tolerance.

The first Generation Zero I encountered was on the ZeroCancer website. ZeroCancer was originally called the National Prostate Cancer Coalition; the name was changed in 2008 to convey the goal of an entire generation with no prostate cancer. The moniker follows the pattern of Generation X (the cohort born after the Baby Boom) and Generation Y (millennials).

Curious, I looked for other Generation Zeros. I found one in New Zealand: Generation Zero, dedicated to reducing carbon pollution and fossil-fuel use to zero.

I also discovered a "Generation Zero" online comic. The title refers to "an experimental strike team" whose children have been abducted to serve as "psychic soldiers" for a weapons contractor.

Finally, there's Generation Zero, a 2010 documentary directed by Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive who currently serves as the CEO of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. The film posits that the 2008 economic crisis was "not a failure of capitalism, but a failure of culture." The generation of the title is the Baby Boomers, who, the film argues, will cause the next generation to "start from zero."

Zero tolerance is equally as flexible. Since the 1970s, it has referred to a form of policing that imposes strict punishment for infractions of a stated rule; it became widespread during the Nixon and Reagan administrations' "War on Drugs." The term spread from the streets to the schools, and since the 1990s it's become, as a New York Times report from early October 2016 put it, "holy writ" in classrooms around the country. With sadly little positive effect, it turns out:

[T]he concept of zero tolerance has come to encompass such a broad range of disruptive actions that roughly three million schoolchildren are suspended each year, and several hundred thousand are arrested or given criminal citations. Many students are hauled off to police station houses for antisocial behavior that, a generation or two ago, would have sent them no farther than the principal's office.

In the very beginning, however, zero tolerance referred not to behavior but to science. According to The Phrase Finder, run by the British researcher Gary Martin, the term was used in the 1950s and 1960s by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "to describe the amounts of pesticides that were allowable in foodstuff." Martin suggests that the phrase may have been in use "in engineering circles" even earlier: a 1943 newspaper story mentioned a precision machine tool called a Zero-Tol.

The allure of zero is perhaps nowhere more compelling than in the world of women's fashion. One high-end label, California-based Zero + Maria Cornejo, makes nothingness its brand story: the naught comes from "a pure vision: a number that neither adds nor subtracts." But lower-case zeros are everywhere as well. When standardized size charts were first created in United States, during World War II, the smallest women's size was an 8, for a woman who had a 23.5-inch waist and weighed 98 pounds. By the early 2000s, thanks to the magic of vanity sizing, those dimensions translated into the newly created size zero.

And the pursuit of near-negative numbers hasn't stopped there. Around five years ago, some brands began adding size 00 to their offerings. And this year, if you shop at a mass retailer such as J. Crew or Banana Republic, your options include a size 000. Vanishingly small? Not really. Triple-zero's proportions are within half an inch of the size 8 of seven decades ago.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday October 15th 2016, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Makes me think of the zero-hour contract ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-hour_contract), and though it's a bit old now, the great suspense film with Colin Firth, "Apartment Zero".
Tuesday October 18th 2016, 3:54 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
How about Zero Mostel, famous actor/comedian? He was nicknamed "Zero" by his mother, who told him he would amount to "Zero" if he didn't do better in school. Born Samuel Joel Mostel. He was the original Max Bialystock in "The Producers" (one of my favorites) and Tevye, in "Fiddler on the Roof."
Tuesday October 18th 2016, 6:20 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Dan F.: You know, I had Zero Mostel's story in my notes, along with a lot of other material that didn't make it into the column. In the end, I decided to focus on brand names. Thanks for the added information!
Tuesday October 18th 2016, 8:13 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
And the very first James Bond villain name!
Le Chiffre in Fleming's Casino Royale in 1953.

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