Petrol or Gasoline?

It’s probably pretty well-known that gasoline and petrol are the same thing, being the American- and British-English terms respectively for the same fuel.

It’s not unusual for their to be such marked differences between the words for the same thing in both varieties of English. But I’ve always been curious as to why the words are so different, especially considering that petrol has a fairly logical etymology.

It comes from petroleum, a.k.a crude oil, which comes from the Greek words petra (rock) and oleum (oil). Gasoline though, has no obvious Greek or Latin roots. Not only that, but the gas part of the word is quite confusing, as gasoline is of course a liquid. And it doesn’t help that it’s generally shortened to gas in American English. For a long time as a child I assumed that American cars were powered by some sort of gas.

One theory as to why it has that name is that the gas part does in fact refer to gas, simply because in the 19th century people were used to using gas as a fuel for lights, and calling petrol gasoline would make it clear to people that it was a fuel. Adding -ol was to indicate that it was derived from crude oil, and -ine was used simply as a standard chemical suffix. It’s pretty mundane, but that’s often how words come about.

Another theory though, is more interesting. John Cassell, an English publisher, printer, and social reformer, began selling an early form of petrol in the 1860s which he called Cazeline. His product sold quite well throughout the United Kingdom as it was then, until he noticed that sales had decreased quite suddenly in Ireland. Looking into it, he discovered that a Dublin shopkeeper named Samuel Boyd was selling counterfeit Cazeline. When Cassell contacted him, Boyd didn’t reply, but instead took up a pen and changed every C on his product to a G, and claimed that he had come up with Gazeline himself. Unsurprisingly, a judge didn’t see things the same way, and ruled in favour of Cassell when the case came to court.

However, Cazeline didn’t endure long, and though we don’t know if Boyd continued selling his product, it seems that his hastily made-up name for his product may have gone on to inspire the word gasoline, as it entered popular use in the United States at about the same time as the court case. Cassell might have had his day in court, but Boyd had the last laugh, as etymology is no respecter of the law.

On a somewhat related noted, I did once meet someone who drove a gas-powered car, now that I think about it. It used LPG (liquified petroleum gas) or autogas, as it’s often known in Europe. I also remember that he spoke Ladin, a relatively obscure language spoken in areas of Northern Italy. It’s a Romance language, similar to Swiss Romansch… but all that’s a tale for another day.


7 thoughts on “Petrol or Gasoline?

  1. FYI, in the Philippines, it’s also called gasoline or gasolina. And maybe 1/2 of the population there use LPGs for cooking , contained in tanks that they buy at LPG stores ( or delivered to their homes ).I don’t know what they call petrol in Canada, though. In Mexico, it’s gasolina.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post! As a kid growing up in the US, I remember being confused when we first learned about liquids, solids and gases — knowing that our cars were powered by gas, clearly a liquid!

    But here is a question for you — what about Vaseline, petroleum jelly? Made from petrol? I think it is… Was Vaseline just a sneaky trademark to rhyme with gasoline? And what is it called in the UK?

    Liked by 1 person

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