Language: Apropos of Nothing

By Mordechai Schiller

The words series is over.

In case you missed it, this year Oxford’s Word of the Year (WOTY) took a public vote. The winner was “Goblin mode — a slang term, often used in the expressions ‘in goblin mode’ or ‘to go goblin mode’ … a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.’”

Goblin mode was the natural reaction many people felt to natural and unnatural disasters — from COVID to the war in Ukraine. Think of it as acting like the mythical ostrich with its head buried in the ground … on tranquilizers.

Merriam-Webster’s WOTY was chosen by lookups. And the lookups don’t look good. Their word was gaslighting: “A driver of disorientation and mistrust, gaslighting is ‘the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.’ 2022 saw a 1,740% increase in lookups for gaslighting.”

Gaslighting seems like a modern application of the sin of placing a stumbling block before the blind (Vayikra 19).

(My nose started itching — copyeditor’s occupational hazard — over Oxford’s using “which” in place of “that.” Then again, at MW’s starting a sentence with the number 2022. So, I did what I always do. I looked them up. Unapologetic to Fowler, Lynne Murphy wrote in The Prodigal Tongue that more American than British writers honor the that/which distinction. G-d save the King’s English. As for starting the sentence with 2022, Garner’s Modern English Usage and Chicago Manual of Style prefer rewriting to starting a sentence with a year; but AP Style says that years are an exception.)

Meanwhile, Johnson’s Dictionary Online announced its WOTY. “Selected for its cheerful meaning and for being a fun-but-forgotten noun form of a common adjective: ‘Gladder. One that makes glad; one that gladdens; one that exhilarates.’” A ray of light broke through the gloom. Thanks, Dr. Johnson. I feel gladder already.

Word of the Year doesn’t do it for me. I follow words like some people follow politics or sports. I’m what Richard Lederer called a verbivore: “Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words.”

A recent OED Word of the Day was zilch, a verb meaning “to defeat (an opponent in a game or match) such that their final score is zero. More generally: to defeat; to quash, to reduce to nothing.”

In Semantic Antics, Sol Steinmetz wrote, “‘Nothing — zip, zilch, zero!’ is an informal way of emphasizing nullity or nothingness.” For example, “In 2000, pushing for normal trade relations with China, President Bill Clinton argued that such a move ‘grants no greater access to China to any part of the American economy, nothing, zip, zilch, nada, zero.’”

Another definition of zilch that Steinmetz found was “the amount you have left after paying your taxes.”

After tracking several possible sources for the etymology, he concluded, “The bottom line, though, is that what we know of the true origin of these words is zip, zilch, zero.”

On a whim (What exactly is a whim? And why do we do things on it? Hold that thought for another column), I searched my email for the word zilch. I found 41 results. One of the emails was from a friend who didn’t get an attachment I sent. He replied, “I got zilch, nada, nothing, nil, nix, etc.”

Why so much ado about nothing?

Thinking about nothing, the first that came to mind was Robert Paul Smith’s 1950s Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing — a nostalgic look at his own 1920s childhood, when things were simpler. (He should only see today’s cyber kids. Oy!)

Describing a day at the pool, Smith wrote, “We were doing nothing. We were not particularly worried about it. That’s one of the reasons you come to a swimming pool. … There is a difference between doing nothing and being bored. Being bored is a judgment you make on yourself. Doing nothing is a state of being. Kids know about this if you leave them be.”

Rummaging through the attic (or was that the basement?) of my mind, I turned up more nothing.

A Pogo cartoon from 1953 featured Howland Owl, the presumed wisest person in the swamp (Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia — home of Pogo). Owl decided to start a college, and a self-appointed committee, including the hypocritical Deacon Mushrat and the Cowbirds — communist birds, often posing as doves — approached Owl and asked what he’d been teaching.

Owl answered, “Nothin! Not a thing … I been so busy signin’ these diplomas. I ain’t got time to teach ’em nothin’.”

The Deacon (whose pompous tone of voice is depicted by gothic lettering) said, “Nothing, eh? If you’re teaching them nothing, they can’t learn much. …”

But the Cowbirds demanded, “What kind of nothin’?”

Invoking academic freedoms, Owl said, “I’ll teach nothin’ as I pleases. … Anythin’ I happen to know nothin’ ’bout, I’ll teach it if I got the strength!”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized there’s more to nothing than meets the eye. I thought of the mystical concept of Nothingness; and my friend Rabbi Dovid Sears confirmed my hunch, providing Chassidic sources.

The Maggid of Mezeritch, zy”a, successor to the Baal Shem Tov, zy”a, writes that a person should consider himself nothing and only pray on behalf of the Shechinah (Divine Presence) … thus he will enter the world of contemplation, where all things are equivalent — life and death, land and sea — and he will rise above the physical world, above time and place to a sense of total unity. …”

The Chassidic sources were a revelation. The more I read, the more it became clear:

I know that I know nothing.

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