Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Z is for Zero

Zero: 0, nought, nothing, zip, zilch, gratis, free - we have lots of words for the grand emptiness of the void.

Did you know that the Romans did not have a mathematical concept of 0, which makes subtracting in roman numerals a pain in the arse! The first concept of 0 as a number is attributed to India in the 9th Century AD.

However, arithmetic aside, humans have had a concept of zero as long as there have been humans, we know the difference between having something and not having it. We also had the idea of 'there's no such thing as a free lunch' as well, an inherent suspicion of getting things for free. And, in a lot of cases we are right. Even when someone is 'giving something away', in all but the most altruistic settings of charity, there is usually motive behind the giving. A BOGOF (buy one get one free) offer is there to get you to buy the item in the first place. A free gift on the front of a magazine is a persuasion to purchase again. Even when we authors put a free story out for our readers, we're looking to encourage you to read our other books, or even leave a review so the word about our books is spread. So, the item that is being given is 'free' in the sense that there is no monetary payment for it, but there's something else being done in return.

Of course, there are those who give their time and money absolutely free, those who run, or give to charities are not expecting anything for their efforts except to help. The tale of the Good Samaritan is so well known, the use of the term is understood in society, that it carries a message of helping your fellow human beings without prejudice, or thought for yourself.

Selflessness is a wonderful quality, something to which a lot of us aspire, but I think very few of us truly achieve it. I've always loved the film, The Nun's Story, which is about Sister Luke, as she goes from being an ordinary girl from Belgium to become a novice and then a nun, and how she struggles with giving herself completely to God, giving herself to a higher purpose. She fails to surrender completely to the will of her Order, due to not being able to maintain the neutrality the church has demanded of her in World War II. However, when she walks out of the convent at the end of the film, into a life of service, I might add, because Sister Luke, Gabrielle van der Mal, was a real person, I don't think she failed in her selflessness, just in the tests that man gave her.

On another note of zero, or rather, Towards Zero, a book by Agatha Christie, that was adapted recently as a Miss Marple mystery (although she doesn't appear in the book), by ITV. The reason I mention it, is that there is a rather good speech in it, delivered by Frederick Treves (played by the wonderfully eccentric Tom Baker), when he points out that a murder in a detective story shouldn't happen first, because it is actually the last thing to happen, that a murder is developed over years, a sequence of events that bring a set of people to a certain place at a certain time, converging on zero. I've always thought that this was a brilliant way of looking at it, especially for a writer, because, when I work out mysteries, not just murder, but also arcs in stories that are slowly revealed, I often start from the end, from the event that will eventually be the culmination of the mystery/arc, because I find it is much easier to work out all the strands stretching into that point when I have that moment, the zero hour, clear in my head.

Writers owe a lot to zero, as well, in it's usefulness in metaphors and allegories. It can be used to express despair, the dark emptiness of the soul, but can also be used as a catchy, and sometimes sarky expression in speech, e.g. 'Well that got us exactly zilch, zip, nadda.' I've always rather liked the German, nichts, it kicks on the tongue and really expresses the essence of nothing.:)

So, zero has many uses in our society: purely mathematical, sums would be a lot harder without it; the freebie, that, most of the time comes with strings; selflessness and charity; the zero hour, the culmination of events; and many, many more. And without the many forms of nothingness, English would be a lesser language.

Do you have a favourite expression, or word for zero?

P.S. Check out other folk doing the A to Z April Challenge.

And if you want to see my other posts:

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