Nil-ism In America: When You Stare At The Pitch, The Pitch Stares Back

Amid this year's World Cup, American sportscasters have been turning frequently to the term "nil" when talking about scores, using it instead of zero. Nil, though, is a British term — not a soccer term. Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press, tells Robert Siegel why the word might be gaining currency.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now a word in support of nothing - zero, zip - which is to say a word against nil. And it's 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 would both shout - holy cow - in their graves. It's different in Britain. There sports writers use nil very often - and not just in soccer. Here are some examples that I have found online. From itv.com, a rugby match in Dorset ended with the home side winning 212 to nil. From the website snookerline.com - snooker is a cousin of pool - Larone lost the A side final by a 3 nil score. From the explanatory website lawnbowls.com - think of bocce on grass - game is reached when a total of 96 is achieved, this is after a minimum of 8 ends 96 - Nil. I have no idea what I just read. And this is from Wikipedia's explanation of a set in darts - Taylor won the first two sets by three legs to nil. Now if the Brits want to say nil, that's their business. But American sportscasters, even our newscasters on this network, as well as many soccer fans, have taken to saying nil to describe the score when one side, I guess they would say, fails to score on the pitch. Joining us is Catherine Martin, head of U.S. Dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. She's in our bureau in New York. What is with the anglophile vocabulary?

CATHERINE MARTIN: Well, I think 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. But what about saying kit instead of uniform? And I think for a lot of fans, there's a certain amount of anglophilia that goes hand-in-hand with being a soccer fan and so they may like that.

SIEGEL: We asked, by the way, Dave Johnson to weigh in on this. He's the announcer for the Major league soccer team DC United. And he says that once in a while he uses nil but not very often.

JEFF JOHNSON: I always said to someone that I don't use the term nil because when I say I'm going to the men's room I don't say I'm going to the loo. Soccer is not just played in the United Kingdom, it's played all over the world. I don't think in Mexico they say it's a game they lost uno-a-nil.

SIEGEL: So we have some professional soccer and he's not saying the score is one-nil. We've had college soccer and youth soccer all these years.

MARTIN: No. It's a good point. But I think it all depends on the person who's talking. And also that it's very easy for the anglocycisms to creep in. Many of the American announcers who are talking about soccer right now in the World Cup are actually, you know, they're native British-English speakers. So they come by their kits and their nils quite honestly. And sometimes if you look at transcripts you'll see that the American journalists in response sort of pick up some of that language.

SIEGEL: So as somebody in the dictionary biz, do you think the American nil is here to stay?

MARTIN: I would not be surprised. This has been a big World Cup and nil is a perfectly good American-English word, even though it's not usually used by Americans in this way. And I'm sorry to tell you that I did a little research before coming in here and I found it being used in baseball, of all contexts, in the last couple of years so it may be creeping in.

SIEGEL: Well, Catherine Martin, I hope you're wrong, but thanks just the same.

MARTIN: Thanks very much for having me.

SIEGEL: Catherine Martin is head of U.S. Dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. She joined us from New York. You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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