Q From Bill Penn: My source books give me a totally unsatisfactory background on the word zilch. (Please note I resisted saying the books gave me zilch on zilch.) Can you help?
A There goes a chance for a pun. Spoilsport ...
You’re right that dictionaries are almost uniformly cautious about the origin of this word, which means “nothing; zero”. It appears first in print in the mid 1960s (the first example in the big Oxford English Dictionary is from a slang collection at the University of South Dakota dated Winter 1966).
Some reference books suggest the Ballyhoo humour magazine, first published in 1931, was a possible source. This had as one of its characters a Mr Zilch (actually there were several of them: the front page of the first issue advertised “President Henry P. Zilch. Chairman of the Board Charles D. Zilch. Treasurer Otto Zilch”). The character was not actually pictured in cartoons in the magazine, but was obviously present, so he was “the little man who wasn’t there”.
This name may have come from college slang of the 1920s, in which Joe Zilsch was the archetypal average student — the average Joe, in fact, marching in the same column as Joe Blow, Joe Doakes and the more recent Joe Sixpack. That sense is still around and sometimes used in the same way as John Doe, to refer to an individual who is otherwise unidentified. In the 1920s, however, Joe Zilsch could also be an insignificant person or (in modern terms) a loser. The spelling suggests a European origin (and Zilsch is a real German surname of Slavic origin). The name was probably borrowed with zero and nil in the back of the creator’s mind.
But the years between the 1930s and the 1960s are a complete blank as far as the development of the word is concerned, so we have no way of confirming that this is the source. Indeed, the long gap might be indirect evidence that it isn’t. Alas, etymology is not an exact science, so this is yet another occasion on which I just have to say “Origin unknown”.