June 20, 2013

Case File #013.06.20: ZILCH

Although the roots of the word zilch are difficult to trace with any genuine certainty, they seem to wind back to Joe Zilsch, a slang phrase that was coined by college students in the 1920s and meant “an average person” or “a nobody.” In the 1930s, the humor magazine Ballyhoo poked a little fun at college-student patois by using the popular slang—the spelling had by then changed to Zilch—as the name of a recurring comic-strip character who was never seen but always undoubtedly present. Despite the fact that the cartoon character was literally made of nothing, however, the now common use of zilch in which it means “nothing” or “zero” didn't show up until the 1960s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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