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Posts Tagged ‘petroleum’

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.

Gas pump

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.

Frequency of use of gas station from 1900 to 2000

Gas station 1920-2000

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!

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One of the reasons for the dearth of posts lately is that I took a trip back to the UK to visit friends and family. In short, I went on vacation. My wife and I stayed with my parents who happen to live “off the grid” – which means they have no Internet access, and as a result of this, I was also disconnected from the wired world. Now although this may seem a little unusual these days, it is precisely how a vacation was supposed to work just a mere 25 years ago, before we all voluntarily allowed ourselves to be electronically manacled by our bosses and friends using a mobile phone. When George Orwell wrote 1984 and predicted the hell of a world where Big Brother would be constantly watching us, he failed to realize that this wouldn’t come about by the cruel jack-boot of a dictatorship but a voluntary submission to private corporations whose technology not only lets us be tracked but for which we pay a handsome premium! It’s as if we not only invited Big Brother to live in our houses but paid him for doing it.

There is now technology available that can be worn and which records your everyday life. The Autographer, slated for a November 2012 release, is a wearable camera that automatically takes up to 2,000 pictures a day, and with a 136 degree lens, it’s able to take in a fair amount of the wearer’s immediate environment – including you if you happen to be around.

Autographer wearable camera

Autographer

And the Memoto, expected to ship in February 2013,  is another wearable camera that snaps an image every 30 seconds and uses GPS to tag where the photos are taken.

Memoto wearable camera

Memoto

So imagine a world where we all have one of these to record our lives, and by extension, the lives of everyone we meet. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy or a neo-Luddite, but I find that vision somewhat scary. We pretty much end up living in an electronic goldfish bowl where everything we ever do and say becomes embedded in some unaccountable cloud-based “world memory” that never gets erased. And even if you opt-out and say, “I refuse to wear one,” how do you stop your interactions with all the folks who are using them?

If you do 35 mph at 3:00 am on an empty street where the limit is 25 mph, is a crime committed if no-one sees you? Well, in the goldfish world, yes! If your camera is on, you are the seeds of your own destruction, especially if your “crime” is backed up by your GPS data, and supported by the street cameras that seem to be popping up all over the world.

So we are slowly giving up our privacy, slice by salami slice, of our own free will because we want “cool technology” and “instant, constant communication,” until one day we realize that our lives are little more than live action reality TV shows streaming over the Internet to anyone who cares to watch – and judge.

All of this thinking was precipitated during my UK trip following my attempt to fill up my rental car with petrol – as those funny Brits like to refer to gas. I say “attempt” because when I tried to pay using my US debit card, the petrol station’s technology turned it down. I had to whip out a credit card to assuage the demands of BP’s point-of-sale system. I was also aware of the fact that not only was my location now “known” to the bank, but the cameras inside and outside of the petrol station were recording my every move. I guess it’s only paranoia when they’re not out to get you!

Petrol is a shortened form of the word petroleum, defined in the sense of fuel for cars as;

A light fuel oil made by distilling petroleum and used in internal-combustion engines, esp. in motor vehicles.

It’s first recorded use as such tool place in 1895 in a book by D. Salmons entitled Horseless Carriage where he says, “Benzine of a certain density, known in France under the name of essence de pétrol, …is the material employed to run the engines.”

Prior to this, petroleum was the word used to refer more generally to;

A viscous liquid, consisting chiefly of a mixture of hydrocarbons and varying in colour from black or dark brown to light yellow, that is formed by the decomposition of organic matter buried in sediments, is present in some rock formations (sometimes seeping out on to the ground), and is extracted and refined to produce fuels (esp. petrol, paraffin, and diesel) and other substances; mineral oil.

It appears in Old English as petraoleum and derives from the post-classical Latin, petroleum, which means “mineral oil,” i.e. oil from rocks. The Old English actually does a good job of revealing the more detailed etymology, with the first element, petra, being the classical Latin for “rock,” and the second part, oleum, being the word for “oil.” Hence the notion of oil from rocks. We can trace petra even further back to the Ancient Greek πέτρa that also means “rock.”

Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks differentiated between πέτρa as the generic material and πέτρος, which refers to “a stone for throwing.” The Greeks even had the word πετροβόλος  for “the act of throwing stones.” Now, back in 1973, linguist J. Peter Maher wrote a paper with the fabulous title of “Neglected Reflexes of Proto-Indo-European *pet– “fly”: Greek petros “stone” / petra “cliff”; with notes on the role of syntax (IC structure) in polysemy and semantic change, and the situational motivation of syntax.” [1] What he suggests is that the same Indo-European root word, *pet-,  that gave rise to the throwable stone was also the source of the word feather, from where the sense of a stone flying through the air comes from.

Feather on a stone

Feather and stone

Who would have thought! And if anyone comes across a pub called The Stone and Feather, please let me know. Alternatively, if you want to open a new pub called The Stone and Feather, I’d be happy to come along and provide a linguistic opening.

Notes
[1] The Oxford English Dictionary cites this as 1977 in Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 3, where the article does indeed appear, but  it was actually written in 1973 and appeared in the journal Lingua e Stile, 8, 3, 403-417. A minor point but I just wanted to point it out in the interest of accuracy and provenance.

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