Why are zero and the letter “O” both circles? The answer involves both science and mysticism

Long, long ago, typewriters made no distinction between the number 0 and the letter O. While the two share the same shape, the origin of both number and letter are quite different. Let’s look at the distinct astrological and optical inspirations that created these seemingly identical symbols.

Derived from the Semitic letter Ayin and inspired by the circular eye-shaped Egyptian hieroglyph for “eye,” the letter O is the fourth most popular letter in the English alphabet. The sound is probably a derivation of the Arabic letter called ‘Ayn.

The vowel characters we utilize in our modern English alphabet are thought to originate from the Greeks who borrowed the letter and adapted it for the Greek O, or Omicron, which literally means “small o.” In contrast, the Greek word Omega means “great O.”

Unlike the letter C, O has a clearly-defined phonetic identity. The long /o/ is a close-mid rounded vowel and creates the sound heard in :boat” and “remote.” The letter takes on a slight phonetic variation when followed by the consonant /w/ as in “prowl.” An example of the short /o/ sound is best exemplified by “‘fox.”

While the English alphabet has stayed true to the original Egyptian graphic, it’s interesting to note that the Afaka script, a Ndyuka language, and the Ol Chiki script, a Santali language, use the same shape to denote a similar sound. The shape of the letter in both alphabets is attributed to the shape of the mouth when making the sound, not any sort of universal or geographic relationship.

In mathematics, the number 0, or simply zero, most likely derived its shape from the sun and the moon. Many have ascribed divine qualities to circles. The study of the circle eventually led to the development of astronomy, geometry and calculus.

The ancient Greeks were flummoxed by the empty space represented by the zero. This uncertainty led to philosophical and religious arguments about the existence of zero and its use as a number. Once simply considered a placeholder, or to accentuate a void with no absolute value, the concept of using zero as a number was developed in India around the 9th century AD.

It wasn’t until the 12th century via the Arabic numeric system and the work of the Persian scientist al-Khwarizmi that the number zero was introduced to the Western world through Latin translations of the al-Khwarizmi’s book titled, appropriately, Arithmetic.

Speaking of numbers, find out why planes like the 747 are named after numbers, here.


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  1. Nate Vaughn Blair -  July 17, 2016 - 9:14 am

    This article is a mess.

    “The long /o/ is a close-mid rounded vowel”. Close-mid rounded what? Central? Front? Back? Also, it might’ve been a good idea to mention it’s a diphthong, not a long vowel.

    and creates the sound heard in :boat” and “remote.” Nope, those words contain diphthongs.

    The letter takes on a slight phonetic variation when followed by the consonant /w/ as in “prowl.” Do you mean /au/? Because that’s hardly a slight variation.

    An example of the short /o/ sound is best exemplified by “‘fox.” No, fox does not include a close-mid rounded back vowel; it contains a lax vowel in all varieties of English.

  2. Nhlanhla -  August 20, 2015 - 5:39 pm

    So if zero this number “0″ is nothing then why its is there?because,for an example if there’s five men if I count them I will begin at 1 not at 0

    • Cant Believe IT -  April 28, 2016 - 6:56 am

      Shut up!… and how you suggests to write 10, 20, 100? For gods sake!

    • Brian -  May 7, 2016 - 1:48 am

      Well Nhlanhla, with a username like yours, there’s confusion immediately. Also, if you cant understand what good English grammar is, then I doubt you’ll understand much at all.
      Other folks, count the grammar mistakes in this…..

      So if zero this number “0″ is nothing then why its is there?because,for an example if there’s five men if I count them I will begin at 1 not at 0

  3. Beauty Okparah -  August 6, 2015 - 11:32 am

    Which is the correct way to verbally call one’s phone number? For instance, Is it zero 8 zero for 080… or letter ‘o’ 8 ‘o’? What is the convention? In Nigeria, it is used interchangeably and its been confusing. What is the correct position?

    • Nhlanhla -  August 20, 2015 - 5:50 pm

      Beauty this thing even confused government that why each an every country got its area code beginning with real numbers not 0 because its cheating with O lol

    • Katie -  October 29, 2016 - 2:22 pm

      These days it is best to say ‘zero’ of the number and o (oh) for the letter. The reason it is more important is because most people use a computer now and if you wanted to write for example a post code that has the number zero in it and you typed o instead of zero it wouldn’t be accepted soon an online form. The thing is if you were to ask BT for a phone number in London she would say o 2 o and not zero two zero which is wrong.

  4. Casey -  July 10, 2014 - 12:39 am

    “The addition of zero as a tenth positional digit is documented from the 7th century by Brahmagupta, though the earlier Bakhshali Manuscript, written sometime before the 5th century, also included zero. But it is in Khmer numerals of modern Cambodia where the first extant material evidence of zero as a numerical figure, dating its use back to the seventh century, is found.[3]”

    Old Angkorian Khmer were the first to use numerical zero according to ancient Indians.

  5. karen patrick -  February 3, 2014 - 11:05 pm

    On screen or typed, zero and the letter O are nearly impossible to distinguish side by side. Play it safe and spare your customer some agony and eye strain. Don’t include both zeros and O’s when customers have to identify them on-screen or in printed type. Pay particular attention to activation keys and serial numbers since these random alphanumeric sequences are already very confusing.

    • caters -  May 31, 2014 - 8:06 pm

      I agree that unless the o is lowercase that they are hard to tell apart.

  6. bob=evilunicornbutt1254 -  December 5, 2013 - 11:09 pm

    did they come from different countries? if they did, who first noticed that they look the same?

  7. Princess p -  February 7, 2013 - 6:40 pm

    Great!!!i love it.you really helped me with my homework.

  8. Melvin Bronk -  November 6, 2012 - 2:07 am

    One thing is that when you’re searching for a student loan you may find that you will need a co-signer. There are many conditions where this is true because you might find that you do not use a past credit standing so the loan company will require you have someone cosign the borrowed funds for you. Interesting post.

  9. April -  April 11, 2012 - 2:51 pm

    Zero looks much more like an oval to me when I look down at my keyboard.

  10. rammi choudhary -  December 27, 2011 - 10:25 am

    zero means no one take any things from other ,or not given. put the zero at the centre of the origen of the x&y-axis then you get the realty of zero

  11. Workout -  December 25, 2011 - 9:03 am

    certainly like your website but you have to test the spelling on several of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling issues and I to find it very bothersome to inform the reality on the other hand I will surely come again again.

  12. Nik -  September 12, 2011 - 3:20 am

    I second yuppymoon. It’s common knowledge that Aryabhatta, a great Indian mathematician was the first one to use the 0.
    Not only this, the numbers 0 to 9 have an Indian origin and NOT Arabic.

  13. Fatehan Shahid -  August 5, 2011 - 9:41 pm

    Ancient Indian find out the Zero and decimal both’s shape is rounded. One is hollow another one is fulled. Indian make their shape circular, but when its gone in the hand of European’s there problem created because there is ‘O’ which has circular face. It not may any difficulty in writing but when invention of Typewriter its create doubt in typing, because both’s external form is same. Than 0 pressed by side and became in present shape.

  14. MJV -  August 2, 2011 - 10:04 am

    The number zero represents zero angles, that is why is it a complete circle. No angles equals a circle.

  15. Stormy -  July 29, 2011 - 9:02 pm

    I Learned That 0 Was Invented By Ancient Persians, Syrians, People Around That Part Of The World…You Have To Give Credit Where Credit Is Due.

  16. Stormy -  July 29, 2011 - 8:56 pm

    I Have Sometimes Wondered Why The Letter O And The Letter U Gets Intermingled In Greek, Mediterranean And Middle Eastern Cultures. For Example:

    Odysseus Ulysseus
    Osama Usama

    I Believe There Are Others I just Can Not Think Of Them Right Now…Stormy

  17. John -  July 29, 2011 - 10:42 am

    In the Korean alphabet (hangul) the name of a vowel is the sound of the vowel. The appearance of the hangul letter ‘O’ is a long horizontal bar with a short vertical bar rising up from the middle; nothing like what we would call an ‘O’ shape. There are two hangul letters with an ‘O’ shape; the consonants ee-ung and he-ut. Ee-ung is a simple circle. It is silent at the beginning of a syllable and makes an ‘NG’ sound at the end of a syllable. He-ut is a circle with two bars on top. It makes an ‘H’ sound at the beginning of a syllable and a ‘T’ sound at the end of the syllable. The shapes of these two letters have nothing to do with the ‘O’ sound.

  18. Cliff Hawkes -  July 21, 2011 - 12:13 pm

    Back to the original question … actually neither of them are circles! The commonality is that they are both elliptical in shape, but they have different ratios of major/minor axes.

    Even the lower case (o) is not truly circular in modern computer text, though probably is when handwritten.

    The origins are completely different though: O/o from Greek omicron when vowels were introduced into their alphabet c. 800BC and 0 from India c. 8th century AD.

    Although the use of a 0 as placerholder (origin) was used by the Mayans for calendar dates, there appears to be no evidence that it was used as a number for calculation until its incorporation into the Indian numeric system by Gautama Siddha in 718AD (prior to that it was a void space) and its general usage defined by Al-Khwarizmi in c.825AD even though Brahmagupta had defined its rules of usage previously c.500AD (see wiki). Then it was adopted via Arabic to current day Western.

    It is a misnomer about the vowel sound relating to mouth shape or the astrological origins for zero, considering that when we say A, our mouth does not take that shape and that Stonehenge circle (of astrological derivation) was built long before written mathematics!

  19. Muthasucka -  July 21, 2011 - 7:24 am


    Yes, you’re right. Whoops! Thanks for keeping me honest!

  20. FlorenceFate -  July 21, 2011 - 5:05 am

    Although i don’t like math.0 is a MARVELOUS number it leads to the other law in science.0 maybe is just like “Nothing is Something”
    0 is just a mystery
    and FATE tells why it is so important :D

    • Katie -  October 29, 2016 - 2:26 pm

      Tennis is the only game where love doesn’t count, it’s zero!

  21. Jodiann -  July 21, 2011 - 4:35 am

    ” Long, long ago” ?

    The IBM electric typewriter I used in 1982 Beginning Typing HS Class created the same shape whether I hit the zero key or the capital letter “O”.

    TWO “longs”? Really? Two?

    I just coughed and dust fell on my keyboard.

  22. Srulik -  July 21, 2011 - 1:04 am

    Actually the Semitic people have a vowel letter (base) for the O sound. It is represented as a dot above the letter Vav or simply an elevated dot placed in between two letters to represent the O sound. So if there is any relationship between the Semitic languages which some say are the basis for all existing languages – then we must consider the dot shape as the Origin of the circle we use as the O letter. The letter Ayin when written in longhand has a part that is elliptical with 2 “ears” on the upper end of the ellipse resembling a ‘rabbit-eared’ TV antenna of yesteryear. Not really somethingg to associate with a nice smooth circle. Plus the Ayin guttural sound (very guttural indeed) does not relate to the O sound we are accustomed to. Most probably the shape comes from the mouth shape during pronunciation…and not from the letter Ayin.

  23. Rennie Mello -  July 20, 2011 - 11:20 pm

    In speech, calling zero an “oh” makes things confusing sometimes. In Star Wars, before the internet was available, there were always questions whether C3-P0 was a number or a letter at the end.
    Computers add to the confusion with fonts that don’t have a clear distinction between the letter and the number. I hate it when a system assigns me a password with a zero (or is it the letter “o”?).

  24. Archon -  July 20, 2011 - 9:52 pm

    @ Bebop Gastelum

    The statement was inexactly worded, again! Oh, how could such a thing have occured? It should have read that O was the fourth most USED letter in the English language. Perhaps the author felt that that information could be taken from context. They came to find this because, there used to be people who did, what computer programs do now; they count them. Everything put on the internet is sieved for a variety of information, letter counts among them. Watch Wheel of Fortune. For the solution to the final puzzle, contestants are given the five most often used consonants, R,S,T,N and L, as well as the most often used letter in English, the vowel E. Somebody had to count the usages to know. It has nothing to do with being a vowel. It really has nothing to do with the letter being popular. There are certain letters that I’d prefer not to use, but, there they are, inside words I wish to employ.

    Re: misused homophone of the day

    An MSN article about weaponry siezed from Mexican drug peddlars, speaks of cannons, machine guns and thousands of CARTAGES for them.

  25. nangalous -  July 20, 2011 - 9:14 pm

    what around it hey. LOL! get it?

  26. Book Beater -  July 20, 2011 - 5:15 pm

    Are you fatuous or naive?

  27. Archon -  July 20, 2011 - 4:32 pm

    @ Muthasucka

    Nice explanation, but, if there were further articles, they would be complementary.

  28. Jumman Surender -  July 20, 2011 - 4:08 pm

    A bit confusing but really great !!! Thanks dictionary.com

  29. amyecurtis -  July 20, 2011 - 3:27 pm

    @Newgali: I agree, there have been many atrocities committed in the name of God by people from a variety of cults and religious sects…Muslims, Christians, etc…mankind choose to do such things to one another, driven by power, greed, control, possession…corrupt and to some extent – evil. But there have been MORE people from many religious faiths who’ve chosen to do good for others…driven by love, grace, generosity, and compassion. The Lord works in mysterious ways. :)

  30. Asif -  July 20, 2011 - 2:33 pm

    A very fruitful debate, though it started with a confusion and ended, rather lingering on with same confusion. If the English native speakers have any problem with these two symbols they have the right to relpace them or opting for restricted use where necessary like Americans otherwise its alright.
    History is always changing as some scholar said it is a living subject which keeps amending with passage of time. Thus no one is ever sure about historical references and their authenticity but still it is guide for future in all walks of life.
    Hopefully I have not increased the confusion!

  31. Sylvia Ponce -  July 20, 2011 - 11:47 am

    No one can dispute the absolute fact that the Mayan civillization is the absolute first to hold the number 0.

  32. alissa -  July 20, 2011 - 11:16 am

    …ummm I am very confused considering I am only 13 years of age so will someone please dumb that down for me while my brain is trying to de-fry

  33. Muthasucka -  July 20, 2011 - 10:21 am

    Isn’t the answer to why they are the same (or similar) shapes that it’s just a coincidence?

    The “English alphabet” as the author says, is from the Roman alphabet, and, as the author also says, the letter O is based on the earlier Greek letter omicron. The number 0 is from India or Persia or Babylon and based on the sun, moon, stones, seeds or a combination of them all.

    Fine, but the point is that we English speakers took our alphabet from one place and our numeral system from another and that’s why there is a “duplicate” shape. In their respective places of origin, that similarity and confusion didn’t exist.

    Should there be complimentary articles about 1 and I, 2 and Z, 5 and S, 6 and b? It’s just a coincidence. But I agree that the article, like many on this site, asks a question and then never really answers it satisfactorily.

  34. niborkkrobin -  July 20, 2011 - 9:44 am

    The European civilization is non less then 4000 years oldest than Arabic.

    The state that letter “O” derives from Arabic something, is real nonsense!

    Arabic people is so fresh in this world!

  35. princess -  July 20, 2011 - 9:06 am

    I value knowledge above every other physical thing in this world

  36. Walid -  July 20, 2011 - 7:16 am

    The shape “O” is circular with no angels. Look at the number “1″ you’ll find one angel while in number “2″ which used to be written in old script as “Z”, there are 2 angels and so on with number 3 and the others. Take the old script of all numbers you’ll find that each one refers to the number of angels it contains.

  37. Drea -  July 20, 2011 - 5:16 am

    There are older records of the use of the number 0. In fact the Mayans used this number as early as 2000bc!!

  38. Bebop Gastelum -  July 20, 2011 - 3:14 am

    “… the letter O is the fourth most popular letter in the English alphabet.”

    Um… How exactly is a letter popular?
    And how did they come to find this?
    Is it because it’s a vowel?
    Does being a vowel make you popular? :P

  39. Soha -  July 19, 2011 - 11:05 pm

    To Hiba,

    I agree with JBOD, zero was invented by the Indians not by Muslim ppl.

  40. nikky -  July 19, 2011 - 10:23 pm


  41. Anonymous -  July 19, 2011 - 5:26 pm

    @ Akuto Sai
    Why are you talking about rice??

  42. Akuto Sai -  July 19, 2011 - 5:26 pm

    I really love rice.

  43. nihlist -  July 19, 2011 - 7:57 am

    the British postcodes do contain the letters o and i and the numbers 0 and1 but this does not cause any confusion … it is to do with the position … the first two symbols are always letters, the third and fourth are always numbers, the fifth is always a number, and the sixth and seventh are always letters .. so … no confusion here then.

  44. Anthony -  July 19, 2011 - 5:31 am

    Everyone here is wrong about the origin of “0″ denoting zero, or nothing. The shape had nothing to do with the sun or the moon. Indians, after incorporating the validity of the Sumerians’ positional notation, realized that “nothing” also needed a value and a way to write it. When using counting boards/boxes, the Indians would use sand in the boxes. This had two purposes: first, after performing any calculation, the sand could be shuffled and a clean slate would be available; second, and most importantly, the sand acted as a “memory” for the counters. When performing calculations or representing numbers, certain stones were appropriately placed; after the calculation (e.g. 846 – 322), some stones would remain, but the imprint of those that were gone were still left. This served as a way to check the calculations. For some calculations, however (e.g. 846 – 342 = 504), a blank column (zero) would remain. This circular depression in the sand left by the removed stone is where the shape for 0 came from.

    Ref: The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero –good book!!

  45. Anonymous -  July 19, 2011 - 3:38 am

    Yes, the title was misleading and the article was completely unsourced. Perhaps various cultures share a round symbol for a sound that involves making one’s mouth round for another reason … what could it be?

    See, I just made a speculation with no source … am I correct?

  46. Rabiu -  July 19, 2011 - 3:20 am

    Kai!. Haba!! Much time to talk about zero, oogh or O? I think the zero or O represents the knot we tie our tyres with it, which in turn looks like O, and has nothing inside except the air we can not see. So the zero or O represents valuable things we can’t see with our eyes. Shikenan.

  47. Hiphop Dancer -  July 18, 2011 - 8:22 pm

    i just think it was too many words.. :P

  48. Jinx -  July 18, 2011 - 6:53 pm

    The Arabic numbers originally were written so that a person could count the number of corners and deduce the value of the number. It may be a bit hard for us to picture these original numbers, much less describe them as our modern fonts do not show them. The number 1 for instance didn’t have the underscore line that we use today but had one corner as the small upstroke intersected the vertical line. The number 2 was written in more of a block style similar to our ‘Z’ and had two corners. The 7 was written more like the European style with the crossbar. The 0 was formed that way to depict an absence of corners.

  49. imamthathaiam -  July 18, 2011 - 6:46 pm


    It’s understood thee are afraid
    step aside and ye serve well
    it’s all good just stand near by
    us, the will to speak and spell
    the rest though they reek pious
    nonetheless can go to hell.
    from  queen to  castle knights to pawn
    now hear this last reply:
    once I cross the Rubicon
    to toss and let the dice fly high!

  50. JayCee -  July 18, 2011 - 5:24 pm

    On a completely different perspective, why did the writer of the article refer to a *Semitic* letter Ayin, while the given Ayin link (to Dictionary.com) explicitly refers to the 16th letter of the Hebrew alphabet?
    Why does the same writer says *The sound is probably a derivation of the Arabic letter called ‘Ayin’? while Arabic is a much more recent language than Hebrew.
    Interesting the mention to the *circular eye-shaped Egyptian hieroglyph for eye*, but the above link says this is also the meaning of Ayin in Hebrew, a language going back to the pharaos.
    Would it be a sin for the writer to refer to Hebrew language or culture?

  51. Lefty -  July 18, 2011 - 4:34 pm

    Para Calitos!! I was in no shape or form trying to stir stuff up just pointing out the obvious!!

  52. zinderneuf -  July 18, 2011 - 7:37 am

    Shouldn’t the headline be: “Why are zero and the letter ‘O’ each circles? The answer involves both science and mysticism”? Both seems ti implie that the cause is shared. Tha answer just gives two different reasons.

  53. Carlitos -  July 18, 2011 - 5:58 am

    As to the idea that numbers correspond to the quantity of angles that their representative characters contain, that’s rubbish. “0″ has many more than zero angles. And as for the other characters, they have more or less depending on whether the acute or obtuse or all angles at any given intersection are used. Hence, 4 (even without the extra lines) could have up to 6.

    Also, it could be argued that zero is not a number. Zero is the total absence of a numerical value. Yes?

    *toot on July 17, 2011 at 8:30 am
    Newgali, notwithstanding the excessive emphatics, your comment is the most trenchant. Science has done more to advance human civilization in the last one hundred years than all of the combined religions world-wide have done in the last ten thousand. You go to the head-of-the-class.

    —Very good!

  54. Carlitos -  July 18, 2011 - 5:39 am

    Hey Mark, the astronomer-

    I like your reply in regards to Lefty’s omnipresent remark placed in all these blogs to stir stuff up, but would you be so kind to Goss’s remark, calling astronomy astrology? Hahah! ;)

  55. clark -  July 18, 2011 - 5:22 am

    The archetypal oblong shape is a circle cut in half and extended via straight lines between the previously-connected endpoints of the semicircles; the result is not an ellipse, but a different form of “stretched circle”.

  56. clark -  July 18, 2011 - 5:19 am

    So “O” is a circle and zero is an Oblong not both Circles. . . . . . . .

  57. Ezekiel Rage -  July 18, 2011 - 3:43 am

    To be perfectly honest, the only thing I truly look forward to on this blog, is the Comments Section. We sure do have a lot of smart folks around here – it’s always a pleasure!

  58. Lulwut -  July 18, 2011 - 2:10 am


    I love you guys

  59. Mike McKelvy -  July 17, 2011 - 10:30 pm

    O is the shape of the ourobouros, the great worm (snake, dragon) eating it’s tail in an unending circle of creation and destruction in eternal cyclic process. This World-Beast is figured in ancient religion, mythology, sorcery, and philosophy. There’s a lot of material out there, but legitimate references are really hard to find.

  60. daniel cartwright -  July 17, 2011 - 8:15 pm

    Antigone, Hiba, Arabian Stallion, and whomever else may have commented on the creators of zero; The Indians developed OUR SYMBOL of zero (0), as well as the symbols 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. These were discovered by Filius Bonacci (Leonardo Fibonacci) and brought to the Europeans, who were using the Roman numeral system at the time. The Indian figures provided something that the Roman numerals did not; a place value system. It is true that during the Dark Ages caused by Emperor Justinian of Byzantine the Muslim world thrived academically, developing Algebra and furthering other maths, but they did not create the symbol of zero, nor the concept of zero. In fact, the concept of zero is too old for us to fully know of its origins, as it has existed before recorded history. That much is known. The Indians did develop the (0), but there is no proof that its concept is of Indian, Muslim, etc. origin. It is recorded and there are many sources. I am not meaning to insult anyone, I am only wanting to show you what happened and what is (I apologize if I seem at all arrogant).

    It is interesting that the Chaldean word for seed is zero, though most seeds are not circular.

  61. Trot -  July 17, 2011 - 7:16 pm

    I recall letter ‘O’ from the Korean Alphabets as well. It sounds, you guessed it, very similar to its English counterpart, probably derived from the shape the mouth forms when pronouncing it.

  62. ZeroPro -  July 17, 2011 - 6:47 pm


  63. wakener -  July 17, 2011 - 5:21 pm

    Mike . . . since when do we not use the letters “I,” “O,” or the numbers “1,” and “0″ on license platres in the US??? MY license plate has an “O” in it, and I have friends with the other three characters in theirs.

  64. Chris -  July 17, 2011 - 11:22 am

    Saara – i think you mean “w0w”

  65. saara -  July 17, 2011 - 9:44 am


  66. Finney -  July 17, 2011 - 9:05 am

    Zero is the Chaldean word for “the seed”. Straight up same word and pronunciation we use today. The symbol for “the seed” (this is a reference to Tamuz who’s worship is still practiced today in a festival called “Lent”, for instance) was/is a circle; a drawing of a seed.

  67. Rolo -  July 17, 2011 - 8:33 am

    Zero “0″ is paradoxical. On the one hand we’re talking about nothing, on the other we are creating something, namely the idea of nothing. So, what’s the big deal?

    The guy who talked about “angles,” that’s interesting but ridiculous. A circle made out of all straight lines would have angles too. The interesting part is that it would cease to be a circle, which by definition ( I’m making this up) is a continuous curve. Of course ultimately, there’s no such thing as a perfect circle. If you magnify it sufficiently it’s made of dots or smudges. So the circle, as a symbol, seems to also represent infinity. It requires a continuous change of direction to make one.

    There’s an actual discipline in zen called ENSO, which appears to be drawing a circle, often with a calligraphy brush and ink on paper, but not always.

  68. toot -  July 17, 2011 - 8:30 am

    Newgali, notwithstanding the excessive emphatics, your comment is the most trenchant. Science has done more to advance human civilization in the last one hundred years than all of the combined religions world-wide have done in the last ten thousand. You go to the head-of-the-class.

  69. JBOD -  July 17, 2011 - 6:40 am

    To Hiba
    All the research I have done indicates that zero was invented by the Indians. Do you have any references to show that it was invented by Muslim mathematicians?

  70. nathan -  July 17, 2011 - 5:41 am

    So what is zero squared (0 x 0) ? Integers multiplied by zero equal zero; ‘no instances of something’ but what about ‘no instances of nothing’ – surely that must be ‘something(s)’ ….?

    So, mathematically 0 x 0 > 0 but what does it equal – the square root of no number is zero (!)

  71. God -  July 17, 2011 - 5:32 am

    i still don’t get it

  72. clark -  July 17, 2011 - 4:44 am

    Also they where not same circles for O is circle and zero is oblong men.

  73. clark -  July 17, 2011 - 4:43 am

    They are not The same since O is O and Zero was 0 wherein originally zero has a slash 0 remember the old typewriter which when we type zero it is o with slash. but can’t it anymore now since keyboards where now the future.

  74. yuppymoon -  July 17, 2011 - 1:07 am


    Antigone is absolutely right in saying that “0″ has been invented by Indians. It was actually invented by a great mathematician called “Arya Bhatta”.

    Further, the numbers 0-9 are funnily referred to as Arabic numbers, whereas the Arabs have their own numeric system. 0-9 have their origin from ancient India and since they were made popular by the nomadic Arab and Muslim tribes, people from other parts of the world started referring to them as “Arabic” numbers.

    Ancient Indian scriptures prove the above facts. Further, in those days, travelling overseas is a forbidden activity in ancient India. People travelling overseas were socially outcast those days, for maintaining so called ‘purity’ of the society. There were enormous purification rituals to bring those outcasts back into the normal society.

  75. jimb -  July 17, 2011 - 12:57 am

    One’s mouth make’s an ‘O’ when pronouncing the long version or saying the letter’s name. The muscles that perform this action are collectively known as the Orbicularis Oris. This term’s root word is Orb.

    Time to dust off the tinfoil cap.

  76. Archon -  July 17, 2011 - 12:53 am

    @ Cereal Killer

    n00b and w00t are not words. At best, they are jargon. At worst, they are random collections of symbols, attemping to represent random sounds, created by random firing of synapses in teen-age brains overdosed on ego produced by the belief that they have created something intelligent and significant.

  77. justathought -  July 16, 2011 - 9:11 pm

    Perhaps everything isn’t so thought out as we assume. Its like art, you never truly know what the artist was thinking when he created his work. So, in the same respect how is anyone sure why a zero and an O are the same? Maybe the men who sat down and decided on the language just said go for it. Not everything needs to be a whole debate on what people were thinking considering this was thousands of years ago. Zero and O look the same, life will go on.

  78. Sony -  July 16, 2011 - 8:33 pm

    The letter O and number 0 huh. Big difference…

  79. Fran -  July 16, 2011 - 3:51 pm

    @maurganm & mike: Many thanks for your replies!

    As far as I know the UK postal code system uses both the letter O and the number 0.
    I agree that you can write the number and the letter in different ways but why should you pronounce it the same?
    For instance the area I was leaving in London had a postal code ending “0AD”. The 0 should be pronounced “Zero” as it is a number however British people tend to say “Oh”. Maybe in the US you don’t say that…..
    The point is that in telephone numbers there is no confusion as it must be a number but in postal codes could be either!
    This is what I find confusing…..

  80. Book Beater -  July 16, 2011 - 3:23 pm

    The only question left unanswered is; how many holes does it take to fill Albert Hall?

  81. Arabian Stallion -  July 16, 2011 - 3:12 pm

    The zero was invented by the Arabs.

  82. JJRousseau -  July 16, 2011 - 11:55 am

    “Is anybody in there? PF There are no empty holes, only…funny haha. roof, Oui?

  83. DrSeoz -  July 16, 2011 - 11:12 am

    Cereal Killer, that’s very c00t!

  84. Mike -  July 16, 2011 - 10:40 am

    Fran, I know that here in the US we don’t use the letters I and O on car license plates because they are too similar to the numbers 1 and 0. Are you saying that the UK postal code system doesn’t do this? Because that would surprise me.

  85. Archon -  July 16, 2011 - 10:16 am

    @ GinaC

    Answers which require thought…..$2:00
    Correct answers…..$5:00
    Dumb looks are still free!

    You want the author to say what he THINKS it is???
    How much did you pay?

  86. maurganm -  July 16, 2011 - 10:07 am

    Hi Fran,

    English is my native language and I agree with you completely, we do have a lot of words to describe zero and it is confusing. To exacerbate matters “O” can be used in place of saying zero – most commonly when reciting phone numbers, i.e. five, five, five – “O”, one, two, three (555-0123).

    For that it is worth, “nil” and “naught” typically mean “nothing”, and are not usually used as direct synonyms for “zero” (“naught” may be used synonymously, but it is uncommon). Ignore what you have observed while watching tennis matches; they like to butcher the language. ;-)

    Now, related to your point about British postal codes …

    I get that the character “0” equals the absence of a value, and this is graphically represented by the void in the center of the form; but then why when you are handwriting “0” it is common nomenclature to include a “ / ” (which looks a lot like “Ø”) in order to clarify matters. The use of the slash through the 0 seems to be especially necessary when writing alphanumerical postal codes that include both zeros and “O”s. However, then the shape of the “0″ is no longer representative of the void.

  87. Senior -  July 16, 2011 - 10:03 am

    O’s are nice but 0′s are really much nicer – especially when they are added to numbers that represent dollars. 0′s also enlighten us about the absence of particular things thereby stimulating our frontal lobes with a one of a kind type of knowledge that otherwise wouldn’t be there. ’0′ didn’t have to be invented – even animals recognize it – as in ‘when there is ’0′ body at the door the dog will give ’0′ bark(s)’. When a cat chatches ’0′ mice, the cat will leave ’0′ mice for you at your doorstep. It’s a c0gnitive thing, you know. :>)

  88. Mimi -  July 16, 2011 - 9:57 am

    Conceding that anyone here is a Christ follower please pray for me, Mimi. I am not in good health.

  89. JP-TATA -  July 16, 2011 - 7:50 am

    Read your history, or better still the book: ZERO, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.

    The Arabs created the Arabic numerals, althoug they did not invent the concept of zero as we know it today. Newgali, get a life… this is the 21st century.

  90. Anonymous -  July 16, 2011 - 7:11 am

    This is overly perplexing.

  91. ilya -  July 16, 2011 - 7:05 am

    “O” as the number means”nothing” because it is empne hole.

  92. GinaC- -  July 16, 2011 - 6:24 am

    This article does not answer the question “why.” It gives a lot of “what” facts, and leave openings for some inferences, but there is no “why” answer anywhere. I’d be glad to have the author say what he thinks it is.

  93. raja -  July 16, 2011 - 5:49 am

    zero(0) and O are not same …

    O is the word circle because when u say O ur mouth show a figure O in shape …… thats y v say O as O,,,

    but for zero(0)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  94. Hal -  July 16, 2011 - 4:51 am

    Oops! “…the origin…are quite different.”

  95. Fran -  July 16, 2011 - 2:55 am

    English is not my mother tongue and I find confusing the fact that in English the number “0″ can be called in many ways: Oh, Zero, Nought, Nil and so on…
    I was wondering if someone could explain if there is any rule regarding this.
    Personally, I think that this is particularly confusing when spelling out combinations of numbers and letters such as British post codes. If I say “Oh” there is no way for the listener to know whether I mean the letter or the number.
    Many thanks and apologies for my bad English.

  96. Leila -  July 16, 2011 - 2:40 am

    where from the letter o has derived its shape is not clear to me yet

  97. Dinesh Kumar Divyanathan -  July 16, 2011 - 1:00 am

    there s lot of works we’ve got to do…………..dont waste your precious time in “0″……..finally you ll get ’0′…..(zero)

  98. Guest -  July 16, 2011 - 12:56 am

    Hiba, you seem right :)

  99. imamthathaiam -  July 16, 2011 - 12:19 am

    ecclesiastes- why not. is ithat confusing?

  100. Ethics -  July 15, 2011 - 11:52 pm


    by: Ethics 07-16-2011

    Oooh, we have all the brilliance and rationale
    Ooh, outdated some, others right, absolutely
    Oh, be careful not to hurt, do share lovingly…

    0 love mourns
    0 heart dies
    0 nonsense..!

    • Madagondapalli -  January 16, 2016 - 10:07 pm

      Two sets 3 zeros each (ooo-000) placed together takes us to its usage 330 million Gods, a documentary produced in 1977, by the BBC (in association with Time-Life Television). In my opinion- o -represents dot, the smallest circle, representing the essence of the universe (male/time sperm & female/space ovum) both losing their identity in the third-the seed or Bija in Sanskrit, and a set of three ooo symbolically represents their manifest form; while numerical 0 is used in mathematics to mean the indeterminate value, and a set of three 000 used together refers to its indeterminate value at the existentialist level. O is used to represent the womb where fertilization takes place and 0 is used to refer to the opposite.

  101. Ethics -  July 15, 2011 - 11:48 pm

    Ops, my composition date is right, just a reminder dear fellows. It’s a Middle East Date… I have no Time Machine, which is going back to the future… Hahahahahahahah..!

  102. Archon -  July 15, 2011 - 10:52 pm

    @ Oh Man

    Some other guy who is smarter than your guy said, :Of course God plays dice! It’s just that, sometimes he throws them where we can’t see them.”

  103. wibbs -  July 15, 2011 - 9:19 pm

    i still don’t know a thing about why they are the same but whatever floats your boat and tickles your fancy.

  104. Mimi -  July 15, 2011 - 7:52 pm

    Query: How does 4 have four angles?

  105. C -  July 15, 2011 - 5:55 pm

    Only “O” is a circle. “0″ is clearly not a circle, so wrong… they are not both circles, and therefore, a “0″ is not ecliptic. A “0″ is an oval. Nag my craw!

  106. alysha -  July 15, 2011 - 4:04 pm

    @ antigone
    ha ha very funny

  107. Ecclesiastes -  July 15, 2011 - 1:40 pm

    Don’t confuse Catholicism and its historic cruelty with Christianity.

  108. Steve -  July 15, 2011 - 12:49 pm

    And yes, I know all circles are ellipses! So save the critique.

  109. Steve -  July 15, 2011 - 12:44 pm

    I ask my students to determine the practical relationship(s) between the symbols in our our decimal system of numerals.

    0 has zero angles in it [as do all circles and ellipses)
    1 has one angle in it [at he top]
    2, written as a Z has two angles in it.
    3 written as a “tilted” M has three angles in it.
    4 has four angles in it if you eliminate the “tail” that crosses the “post”.
    5 drawn with all straight lines has five angles.
    So on and so on.

  110. anish -  July 15, 2011 - 12:12 pm

    the comments are almost as interesting as the article!! :)

  111. IamthatthatIam -  July 15, 2011 - 11:13 am

    LT- thief soul searcher
    oh my Hero, did you ever find
     bad times good rhymes
    equals more or less exactly zero?
    and where’s yOuR beef to grind?

  112. dearjohn -  July 15, 2011 - 11:10 am

    @ cyberquill

    LOL you’re the man! haha that’s a good point

  113. t.o.d. -  July 15, 2011 - 11:00 am

    @ J.I. & frank burns

    The article says the shape of the letter is attributed to the shape of the mouth when making the sound, and the shape of the number most likely is derived the sun and the moon.

  114. t.o.d. -  July 15, 2011 - 10:54 am

    Ecliptic is correct. See definition 4, “pertaining to the ecliptic,” where ecliptic is a noun meaning “the great circle formed by the intersection of the plane of the earth’s orbit with the celestial sphere; the apparent annual path of the sun in the heavens.

  115. Jekyl Hyde -  July 15, 2011 - 10:49 am

    Actually the ancient Mayans had a the number 0 long before India. They used in in their calculations of dates and in the construction of their calender. By the way the Mayan calender was off true time by approximately 33 seconds per year. No one had a better calender until the advent of computers.

  116. Angler -  July 15, 2011 - 10:13 am

    I remember seeing in Readers’ Digest in the ’60s an explanation that the Arabic Numerals all represented their value by containing the number of angles in the symbol. That is why the european “1″ has the short upstroke connecting to the downstroke…1 angle. The “2″ had one line at the top from left to right, a long diagonal down to the bottom left, and another line at the bottom, to the right…2 angles. The cross on the middle of the european “7″ added 4 angles to bring it up to 7 (with a line at the bottom). The “8″ consisted of two triangles, meeting at their points in the middle…3 angles in the top triangle, 3 in the bottom triangle, and two angles on the left and right of where they met. The other numerals all worked out the same way (before they evolved into the simplified shapes we use today). And the zero had how many angles??? NONE!

  117. robert -  July 15, 2011 - 9:27 am


    Where it says “ecliptic” it ought to say “elliptic”.

  118. Cyberquill -  July 15, 2011 - 9:18 am

    And why did Google+ choose circles rather than triangles?

  119. Hamachisn't -  July 15, 2011 - 9:08 am

    I think of zero as the number “in the middle”, with all the negative numbers on the left and the positive numbers on the right. Of course, there is no real middle, though.

  120. Oh Man -  July 15, 2011 - 8:38 am

    Hey Antigone, very astute observation in that in the next to last paragraph…”concept of using zero as a number was developed in India”… is there clearly.

    Also, to Norman Swartz, some smart guy said, “God doesn’t play dice.” And please no long drawn out god discussions.

  121. sanjay -  July 15, 2011 - 8:13 am

    Ecliptic or elliptic ??

  122. Roberta -  July 15, 2011 - 8:09 am

    Maybe because “eau” means water in French and when you drop something into previously undisturbed water with zero ripples it forms circles as the water says the vowel “Oh.” The mystery is why the letter isn’t called a “plunk.” I suppose “plunk is what we hear physically, but what the water says in its own language is “Oh.”

  123. Book Beater -  July 15, 2011 - 7:15 am

    @ Newgali
    You have it all wrong; the church fostered knowledge and protected it from an immature mankind who would have surely misused it.
    You can’t have people going around all willy nilly thinking freely, before you know it some misguided person could invent penicillin and just blab it to the whole world, then where would we be.
    BTW that was supposed to be Yin in my last post.

  124. John -  July 15, 2011 - 5:22 am

    What hasn’t been dealt with here is that our 0-9 number system derives from Arabic and was devised by starting with a circle with crossed lines in it (like the iconic sniper sights) and each number is shaped like it is because it could be drawn using that grid as a guide. The full circle for zero would have been the starting point of this exercise, as well as symbolizing the empty space within. Try it: you can trace each number using the circle and cross hatching grid.

  125. Cereal Killer -  July 15, 2011 - 4:52 am


    You said, “Not that any words are spelled with a zero…”

    I beg to differ! I know of two: n00b & w00t

  126. frank burns -  July 15, 2011 - 4:12 am

    OK, I took the bait and clicked on the headline — but there is no explanation why they are circles, or of what they share in common. This is obviously irresponsible journalism. I will continue to use the site, but not click on the misleading, sophomoric headlines.

  127. Pat -  July 15, 2011 - 3:07 am

    Sean, eCLiptic looks fine if it relates to an eCLipse, whereas eLLiptic relates to an eLLipse. See the related spellings of each pair? What exactly do you mean?

  128. Pat -  July 15, 2011 - 3:03 am

    Hilba, Antigone is right. The Indians had the 0 for the first time. You see, they needed huge numbers to represent their immense cosmogony and the 0 was very handy.
    The Arabs got it from the Indians (there’s a legend about it being a gift from an Indian king to a sultan, who already owned virtually everything, so what could you give him as a present?).
    Then Fibonacci found out about 0 when travelling in Northern Africa and brought it to Europe, where it was disregarded until much later, as the Europeans were happy with Roman numbers.
    Antigone, the article did say it was from India. Did you mean to add something else?

  129. eve_prime -  July 15, 2011 - 2:37 am

    Zero wasn’t invented by Muslim mathematicians; the first to use it was an Indian, as Antigone notes, and not a Muslim, because he lived before Islam came to India. Look up Brahmagupta in Wikipedia. Al-Khwarizmi, as mentioned in the article, later developed further ideas about zero, and his works were made familiar in the West before Brahmagupta’s were, because of course Persia is geographically and culturally closer to Europe than India.

  130. kirby -  July 15, 2011 - 2:23 am

    i dont really understand.im a lot confused.

  131. Andy -  July 15, 2011 - 1:29 am

    “Unlike the letter C, O has a clearly-defined phonetic identity”

    That’s a classic! Pure dinner-party fodder…

  132. Book Beater -  July 14, 2011 - 10:52 pm

    @ Yen
    My meagre understanding is that there is no first or last number, and that zero is the central number. Neither positive or negative, a null spot on the number line of equal infinities. Perhaps the binding constant between Yen and Yang. The place that if Brahma were to stand; it would.

  133. Sean -  July 14, 2011 - 10:19 pm

    Shouldn’t “ecliptic” (of or relating to an eclipse) be “elliptical”?

  134. yayRayShell:) -  July 14, 2011 - 10:18 pm

    This is pretty c :) :) l!

    smart answer bram

  135. Newgali -  July 14, 2011 - 10:04 pm

    Wanna know “WHY” Muslims and Arabs invented Math, Algebra, first map of the world, Astromomy(way before Galileo), etc, etc, etc…?

    Because Christians and their churches and religion were holding back and smothering science, technology, learning, and progress and torturing millions of people to death and burning books all throughout Europe in the Dark Ages!!

    And the Dark Ages never ended!!! There are still tons of religious people in power and control who have that same religious Dark Ages ideology!! We have to be very, very careful because religion could cause another Dark Ages that could be WORLDWIDE this time!!
    We need to separate church and state more and more and more, and wipe out religion as soon as possible for the sake of humanity and the planet earth!!!

  136. Goss -  July 14, 2011 - 9:48 pm

    The 2nd sentence says that both zero and the letter “O” share an ecliptic shape. I know this article discusses astrology too but doesn’t the writer mean that both characters share the same “elliptical” shape?

  137. Anthony Mead -  July 14, 2011 - 9:30 pm

    There is reference to circles in the Confucian classic I Ching. Hexagram 2, line in the second speaks highly of it!

  138. Me -  July 14, 2011 - 9:19 pm

    wow… thats wierd

  139. Mark -  July 14, 2011 - 8:31 pm

    Do you really mean “ecliptic”? I’m an astronomer and I believe “elliptic” is more appropriate.

    To Lefty: This blog is all about the English language, silly! What if you went to a mathematics blog and it had posts containing math errors? It’s not about being *condescending* or taking things personally, it’s about the language and its correct usage. Some people are sloppy thinkers and don’t care about that. Some people are precise thinkers and do.

    Like math errors, sloppy language usage can lead to miscommunication, and communication is what language is for.

  140. Bram -  July 14, 2011 - 8:19 pm

    I think “O” is derived from the shape of your mouth when pronouncing it.

  141. Hiba -  July 14, 2011 - 7:59 pm


    Zero was actully invented by Muslim mathematicians…

  142. Alex -  July 14, 2011 - 7:38 pm

    I really have wondered why “o” and zero were so similar. I wish that they weren’t so similar though. It would be much easier to read them. Not that any words are spelled with a zero, but it still should be different, at least in the roman alphabet.

    I love these articles. I value knowledge above all other physical things, so these really make me feel good, even if someone else found out about them first! Oh, does anyone know what the references for these articles could be?

  143. Bennet -  July 14, 2011 - 7:11 pm

    If you want to actually learn about zero, schoolhouse rock will set you straight
    Zero is my hero!

  144. J. I. -  July 14, 2011 - 7:03 pm

    I still do not know why zero and O are both circles. Can anyone answer the question? Thank you.

  145. JP-TATA -  July 14, 2011 - 6:27 pm

    I agree with Antigone. However, quite independently, and later in time, the Maya of Southern Mexico and Guatemala recognized the absence of things with a sea shell glyph meaning zero. Their numeral system was vigesimal and included the zero, dots and bars, and with it they were able to create the most precise calendar known to man.

  146. rosanne -  July 14, 2011 - 6:18 pm

    @ Tony U.A: ummmmmm…….well, you haven’t copied the sentence correctly. The sentence reads:

    Many have ascribed divine qualities to circles.

    You’ve typed:

    Many believed have ascribed divine qualities to circles.

    In the original, one sentence follows the other, so:

    In mathematics, the number 0, or simply zero, most likely derived its shape from the sun and the moon. Many have ascribed divine qualities to circles.

    Therefore, in a sense you’re right, because they aren’t supposed to be within the same sentence; they are two distinct thoughts, indicated by the fullstop, yet connected as they are part of the same paragraph.

  147. Norman Swartz -  July 14, 2011 - 5:45 pm

    In DICE, zero equals one. (One numeric value, zero in terms of magnitude, or relative energy.) It’s the only “place” in the world where i know this apparent contradiction of “0=1″ to be true. Watch for my book on this (if we’re still here after 2012)! :-)


  148. Yen -  July 14, 2011 - 5:15 pm

    Should Zero be the first number? Or the Last number?

  149. dyonrax -  July 14, 2011 - 4:52 pm

    do you have any reference?

  150. Lefty -  July 14, 2011 - 4:52 pm

    This was very informative!! Always a pleasure to read all the cool articles and most of all the put downs of fellow bloggers LOL!! Am I only one that gets a kick out of all the arrogant and condesending comments people leave to point out misspelling and improper grammar!!

  151. Travis -  July 14, 2011 - 1:42 pm

    I don’t about that Antigone. Zero is simply beautiful!

  152. Tony U.A -  July 14, 2011 - 1:36 pm

    Edit this paragraph as I copied below.Or enlighten me if it is right.

    In “Many believed have ascribed divine qualities to circles.”, the full stop(.) after ‘moon’ makes this sentence not connect in syntax to the preceding sentence it complemented.
    See the paragraph below.

    In mathematics, the number 0, or simply zero, most likely derived its shape from the sun and the moon. Many believed have ascribed divine qualities to circles. The study of the circle eventually led to the development of astronomy, geometry and calculus.

  153. Antigone -  July 14, 2011 - 1:13 pm

    Zero as a number, was invented by the ancient Indians.


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