In one of those splendid examples of being divided by a common language, my recent post on petroleum (or petrol, as those wacky Brits like to call it) cries out for a similar investigation into the word gasoline. As far as out motor cars go, they are both the same but etymologically speaking, the are clearly continents apart.
Unlike petroleum, which can be traced back to Greek, gasoline is a relatively new word, dating back to the 19th century, where it starts out life as gasolene or gasoleine – or even gazoline. The OED defines it as follows:
Originally: a light fuel oil made by the fractional distillation of petroleum, used for heating and lighting. Subsequently: a similar petroleum distillate used as motor fuel.
The first recorded mention of the word can be seen in the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle from 1863;
Best and cheapest burning oils for winter… Refined colza, gasolene, petrolene. (12th September)
One interesting possibility for the origin of the word is that it may be an eponym – a word derived from someone’s name. The suggestion is that back in the 1860’s, a London merchant called John Cassell sold lighting fluid for lamps under the trade name Cazelene. Meanwhile, a competitor on Dublin had a similar product called Gazelene, possibly to avoid any legal challenges from Cassell, who had a patent out on Cazelene. And how do we know there was a patent? And ad in the London Times said so;
The Patent Cazeline Oil possesses all the requisites which have so long been desired as a means of powerful artificial light (Times, 27th November, 1862)
Considering that a patent application needs to be around before you start talking about it – let alone printing it – it’s likely that it was around a few years before the 1863 citation of gasolene, and may therefore be an early example of the phenomenon of “genericization” – where a trade name becomes a common word, usually to the dismay of the mark holder!
As we know, the use of gas took off in the US in contrast to the UK’s use of petrol. A quick look at the Corpus of Historical American shows the growth of its use in the phrase “gas station” from 1920 onwards. And both words demonstrate the process of back-clipping – the shortening of a longer word by dropping the end part. So now people talk about gas and petrol, not gasoline and petroleum.
Still, the word gasoline itself is a great example of how you can build a word from pieces and parts – or for those who are more academically inclined, how to derive a word morphologically. Clearly there are three parts; gas, –ol, and –ine. So let’s go through each one.
Gas was coined in 1648 (or thereabouts) by the Flemish chemist, J.B. Van Helmont (1577–1644) to describe something that was “a far more subtile or fine thing than a vapour, mist, or distilled Oylinesses.” He modeled it on the Greek word chaos (χάος) and he explicitly said that
A few years later, the more global definition was;
A substance in a state in which it expands freely to fill the whole of a container, having no fixed shape (unlike a solid) and no fixed volume (unlike a liquid); spec. (distinguished from a vapour) such a substance above a critical temperature such that it cannot be liquefied by the application of pressure alone; any substance which normally exists in such a state.
This is pretty much what we currently understand as the meaning of gas.
The next part, –ol, is a suffix used in chemistry to form the names of hydrocarbons – such as that which we refine as fuel for cars. It comes from the Latin oleum meaning “oil,” which in turn appears to be a variation on the Greek elaion (ἔλαιον) or “olive oil.”
The final piece is the suffix –line that was used in the 19th century to create the names of chemical derivatives i.e. chemicals that were created as a result of extracting them using some sort of process – as in the distillation of fuel.
Still, whether you call it petrol or gasoline, it still burns a hole in your pocket!