Monday, June 25, 2007


Melissa from Interlochen, Michigan, asks whether there is a connection between the word naught (nothing) and the word naughty. There is.

The word naughty is a rather insipid word these days. We use it to describe the mischievous infractions of children, the accidents of our pets, or as a synonym for saucy.

But in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a word used to describe industrial-strength wickedness. It ranged from morally evil to turpitudinous to licentious.

One element of the word naught started as the word no and its variants in Scandinavian, Old High German, Frisian and Saxon. It had the force of not, in no way, by no means. So the earlier version of naughty described a person who had no ethical standards or qualms, who in no way was a good person.

An alternate spelling (still used in Britain) is nought, but American English seems to prefer naught.

SIDEBAR: read an earlier blog comparing naughty and nice [March 2, 2007]

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