I know that nihil is an irregular noun, being undeclinable and used only in the nominative and accusative cases. I know that nihilum is a more regular 2nd-declension neuter word, with all the usual endings in all the usual cases. And I know both mean “nothing.”

Is there some kind of distinction between the two? Is there a reason to prefer nihil or nihilum when talking about “nothing” in a nominative or accusative case, or is it purely stylistic? If there is a distinction, would it be proper to substitute a declension of nihilum for nihil when using the word in a non-nominative, non-accusative case? Or if there is no distinction besides stylistic, what was the classical style when handling these two words?

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    Nice question! A big welcome to this warm-hearted community.
    – ktm5124
    Feb 13 '17 at 20:29

The distinction between nihil and nihilum is a very fine one which, no doubt, the Romans learned to apply instinctively. It causes hardly any difficulty in translating from Latin, but in writing idiomatic Latin it does need some care.

Nihil (or nil) is an indeclinable substantive having, very simply and without qualification, the pure sense of 'nothing', or 'not anything'. 'Nothing', referring to nothing else, is absolute and can only have a singular meaning. Nihil isn't used for any other purpose. However, it is equivalent to nulla res, which can be used in those slightly awkward cases where an inflection is necessary because of its position in a sentence — Smith & Hall's 'Copious & Critical Dictionary' gives examples of this, e.g. Nepot. XXI. 2 (end), nullius rei [NOT nihili] _cupidus, nisi imperii, and Cic. Brut. 216, nulla re una magis oratorem commendari quam verborum splendore et copia.

Nihilum, also substantive, conveys a sense of quality, 'nothingness', or 'non-existence'. Like nihil it is necessarily singular, but it can take an inflection acording to use. This explains its use in, for example, conveying the idea of 'worthlessness', as in nihili facere, where it is a genitive of value (sc. 'of nothing at all'). In the ablative it occurs as ex nihilo, 'from/out of nothing' ; in familiar adverbial usages such as nihilominus, nihilo magis ; and to indicate value, as in non nihilo aestimare ('not worth nothing', 'at any rate,worth something' etc.).

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    Thanks, that makes sense. I'd say the difference is both of accidence and syntax -- nihil's lack of oblique cases means it's ruled out in certain syntactic environments. Although I'm actually not convinced that the usual dictionary approach of listing nihil and nihilum as two separate nouns, one indeclinable and one regular, is sensible; it might be better to say that there is just a regular noun nihilum, which has an alternate case form nihil for the nominative and accusative.
    – TKR
    Feb 14 '17 at 21:26
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    I agree especially with your last suggestion. I often think that dictionary compilers are rather too anxious to cover every possibility — just as grammarians are rather too eager to pursue the slightest of nuances that might have baffled even Quintilian and the others in antiquity.
    – Tom Cotton
    Feb 14 '17 at 21:44

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