I knew that zilch was a slangy way to say “nothing,” but until last week I knew, well, zilch about where the word came from. Was it computer jargon like kluge or foo? Or maybe a borrowing from Yiddish?
Neither, it turns out. I owe my enlightenment to a couple of posts on the American Dialect Society’s listserv by Peter Reitan, who has done some impressive research into the word and its origins. Reitan, who blogs as Peter Jensen Brown at the Early Sports and Pop Culture Blog, assembled his findings into a long and fascinating post, “Frank Tinney, Ida Mae Chadwick, and Joseph Zilch—Why ‘Zilch’ Means ‘Zero.’”
That’s right: zilch is an eponym—or perhaps more precisely, a kadigan, or placeholder word. Joe (or Joseph) Zilch was the equivalent of other interchangeable Joes: Joe Blow, Joe Doakes, Joe Six-Pack. Nunnally Johnson used the name regularly, beginning in 1923, in his column for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. But, Reitan writes, Johnson didn’t coin the name:
He almost certainly borrowed it from a running gag used by the comedian Frank Tinney. “Joe Zilch” was the name of his “mysterious off-stage friend” who never appears onstage, which made the name perfectly suited for use as a generic everyman, a nobody – a zero.
And Tinney in turn had borrowed the name “from the husband of one of his co-stars, Ida May Chadwick. Joseph Zilch was a graduate of Brown University, an occasional vaudevillian and a longtime car, truck and automotive parts salesman in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.”