Oil: a partial paradigm

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Oil is one of the most important substances used by human beings.  It can be an essential food for consumption, a medium for cooking and frying, a lubricant, a material for the transmission of pressure through closed channels, a soothing substance for the skin, a substance to burn for propulsion and illumination, a polishing agent, and so forth.  It can even be used metaphorically and literally to signify a calming agent:

The figurative expression pour oil upon the waters "appease strife or disturbance" is by 1840, from an ancient trick of sailors.

Another historical illustration which involves monolayers, was when sailors poured oil on the sea in order to calm 'troubled waters' and so protect their ship. This worked by wave damping or, more precisely, by preventing small ripples from forming in the first place so that the wind could have no effect on them. [J. Lyklema, "Fundamentals of Interface and Colloid Science," Academic Press, 2000]

The phenomenon depends on what are called Marangoni effects; Benjamin Franklin experimented with it in 1765.*


[*What did not excite the curiosity of the founder of the University of Pennsylvania?]

In a personal note, H. Krishnapriyan observed that "the Engish word eventually derives from a specific oil, namely, olive oil."  The same is true for the words for "oil" in most European languages.

[Middle English, from Old French oile, from Latin oleum, olive oil, from Greek *elaiwon, elaion, from *elaiwā, elaiā, olive.] (AHD)
He further observed:
I know that the Sanskrit and North Indian language words for oil, tail can be traced to sesame (til) oil and likewise the South Indian word for oil, eNNe (eL+ nai = sesame ghee).
Was wondering if there is a similar process of generalization in Chinese (and in other language groups).
Excellent question!
I will get the ball rolling by stating that surprisingly we don't have a good etymology for the word for "oil" in Sinitic languages.  That is truly amazing, since oil is one of the basic requirements for maintaining a kitchen (and a household — e.g., lamps for illumination) in China.

The word is yóu 油.  It signifies all sorts of oil, fat, grease, lard, petroleum, paint, as well as derivatives meaning "sly; shiny; glib [unctuous, as it were]", and so on.

(BaxterSagart): /*[l][u]/
(Zhengzhang): /*lɯw/

The character used to write this word has a "water / aqueous" semantaphore on the left and the yóu 由 phonophore on the right.  The latter component conveys the secondary semantic significance of "prolonged; drawn out; through; from".

The earliest occurrences of yóu 油, about two millennia ago (not so terribly long in terms of the history of the Chinese script, which took shape more than three thousand years ago) referred to a few river names, and several centuries before that, particularly in reduplicated form (yóuyóu 油油), to the flowing of rivers or flowing like a river.

The Japanese word for "oil" is abura あぶら.


From the 未然形 (mizenkei, incomplete form) of verb 炙る (aburu, to warm, to toast). Ultimately derived from Old Japanese, from Proto-Japonic *ampura.  (source)

So, as with Sinitic, there is no designated old root for "oil" per se.

Perhaps there is no single, deep root for "oil" in the languages we have looked at because it is derived from such a wide variety of materials:  rocks (petroleum [< petra — Latin for "rock" + oleum — Latin for "oil", for which see above], plants, animal parts and products, and so forth.  Ahh, but aside from plants themselves, don't all oils ultimately come from plants?  And where do plants get / make their oil from?  Furthermore, oils can be created synthetically.  What properties unite all of these differently derived products, such that we can refer to them by the word "oil"?  By and large, they are "slippery, combustible, viscous, liquid or liquefiable at room temperatures, soluble in various organic solvents such as ether but not in water, and used in a great variety of products, especially lubricants and fuels."  (AHD)

Still, I wonder why early, observant human beings did not come up with a single term to embrace all those ubiquitous, valuable substances having the above properties?


Selected readings


  1. Philip Anderson said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 3:39 pm

    I’ve only met the expression as “pour oil upon troubled waters”, although it seems to have been singular originally:

  2. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 4:02 pm

    "Perhaps there is no single, deep root for "oil" in the languages we have looked at because it is derived from such a wide variety of materials: rocks (petroleum [< petra — Latin for "rock" + oleum — Latin for "oil", for which see above], plants, animal parts and products, and so forth.
    Ahh, but aside from plants themselves, don't all oils ultimately come from plants? "
    老鼠尾巴敖湯——油水不大 — Laoshu weiba ao tang — youshui bu duo; a 'proverbial' two part metaphorical saying (xiehouyu): [Like] making soup from rats' tails –(lit) not much oil/grease [to be got]/ (fig) not very profitable.

  3. S Frankel said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 5:31 pm

    @John S Roshsenow – Well, fats that are liquid at room temperature are conventionally called 'oils' and some come from animals. For example: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=emu+oil&ia=web

  4. Krishnapriyan said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 8:16 pm

    Another word I can think of in Sanskrit is lOha (metal), also meaning red. My guess is that it was originally a reference to copper, then generalized to other metals too.

  5. Krishnapriyan said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 8:25 pm

    An additional comment on the Dravidian word. In our dialect of Tamil, we refer to sesame oil as naleNNe, nal meaning good. So, there is a sense to this day that sesame oil is the best.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 9:58 pm

    Fascinating topic… re: the OP, a couple points — one, the fact that "we don't have a good etymology for the word for 'oil' in Sinitic" is a lexicographical shortcoming unrelated to the cultural significance of oil. Two, the word (Mandarin here and below) you2 油 'oil' doesn't seem to go to very early periods; instead the classical corpus has e.g. qi1 漆 ‘lacquer, varnish' (which I suppose could, as far as H. Krishnapriyan's inquiry is concerned, first be the name of the relevant tree[s]); zhi1 脂 'fat; grease'; and also gao1 膏 'grease; lard'. (There is some early tradition that distinguishes these latter two based on animal of origin… this seems dubious.) Re: newer you2 油 'oil' (note the character involved here is first used to write different words like onomatopoetic 'flowing') its origin remains AFAIK mysterious and interesting… I think I've noted here before that it hides in the "y" of English soy from Japanese. Also clever: Taiwanese oo-iû 烏油 'motor oil' presumably from English 'oil' maybe via Japanese.

  7. Zachary Hershey said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 10:17 pm

    The dating of 油 had me interested. So it seems like 脂 and 膏 were used for animal fats/oils, with 脂 usually being solids and 膏 referring to liquid forms. But plant oils seem to appear much later, I wonder when plant oils were first being used.

  8. julie lee said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 4:11 am

    Old Chinese/Old Sinitic *lew is similar in sound and meaning to Welsh OLEW "oil".

  9. Keith said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 4:44 am

    This is probably the longest reply I've ever posted here, because I find this subject very interesting, and it touches upon thoughts that have been floating around in my head for decades. It may, of course, be purely the waffle of a grockle making wild generalisations with no basis in established linguistic theory.

    I'd noticed before that Romance languages seemed to have got their word for "oil" from the word for "olive", but not all through the same etymology.

    Spanish has the word "aceite" as a synonym for "óleo" generally and as a specific word for "olive oil"; it's derived from the word "aceituna", meaning olive, which was borrowed from Arabic az-zaytūna.

    In the Germanic languages we find a term like the English "fat" (vätt, Fett, etc.) for a substance that is a solid or very viscous liquid at room temperatures and a cognate of the English word "oil" (olja, olie, Öl) for those that are less viscous.

    English has another intermediate word "grease" borrowed from French "graisse" which Wiktionary claims is, itself, derived from Latin "crassus" an adjective meaning "(of a liquid) concentrated, thick; turgid".

    Slavic languages use either a native word like the Ukrainian, Russian, Serbo-Croat "масло́/ма́сло" both for butter and for oil or use a borrowing like "у̑ље" or even "зѐјтӣн", a borrowing from Turkish, ultimately from the Arabic.

    Purely my speculation, but I think that very generally Northern populations (so covering Slavic and Germanic languages) would not have had many crops suitable for producing large amounts of comestible oil and would have primarily used animal fats for cooking while Southern populations (so covering Latin, Greek, Arabic but also South Asian languages) would have had access to olives and the oil produced from them.

    Even flaxseed (linseed) oil, which can be produced in Northern Europe, would not have been widely available until the growing of flax to produce linen cloth became widespread after Charlemagne's reign (C.E. 768-814), by which time the Germanic languages would have already had plenty of contact with the Romance words for "oil".

  10. Peter Taylor said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 4:48 am

    The Spanish word for oil, aceite, also comes from a root meaning olive, but it's a Semitic root via Arabic.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 7:50 am

    The more I reflect on the issues raised in this post and in the comments appended to it (linguistic, botanical-zoological, chemical-physical, physiological-perceptual, sensory-esthetic, and so forth), the more do I realize why olive is the quintessential oil.

  12. Chris Button said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 8:00 am

    The form for 由 (油) in the wikipedia entry can be taken back to the oracle-bone inscriptions. Takashima's discussion of its confusion with 古 (unfortunately not the graph listed in wikipedia, but the vertical line over 口) makes good sense.

    It then makes good sense to follow scholars like Todo and Shirakawa (and Takashima in passing) in associating 由/油 with 卣 (and 酉). That would then of course mean giving 由 the same ʁ- onset as 酉, noted here:


  13. Krishnapriyan said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 8:06 am


    >>Purely my speculation, but I think that very generally Northern populations (so covering Slavic and Germanic languages) would not have had many crops suitable for producing large amounts of comestible oil and would have primarily used animal fats for cooking while Southern populations (so covering Latin, Greek, Arabic but also South Asian languages) would have had access to olives and the oil produced from them.

    I don't know about other populations, but I would leave out South Asian populations out of the knowledge or olives. The only locations where olives may have been familiar are likely to the the far North or North-West, if those.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 8:34 am

    @Chris Button

    I was waiting for you to weigh in.

    Subliminally, I too had thought of 酉. Does that put us in the realm of jiǔ 酒 ("alcohol"), concerning which we have touched upon so many times in Language Log posts? Among the early pieces was "Let the Beer-Divider Be Chief!" (8/5/09). Please forgive the inelegance of the typography. That was when I still didn't know how to handle tonal diacritics with ease.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 9:02 am

    In response to the bracketed footnote in the original post, having recently watched Ken Burns's film about the man, I would say the answer to the question is an emphatic "nothing".

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 9:33 am

    @Robert Coren

    Thank you very much for your reply. I like the way you phrased the last part and am grateful for the information about the Burns film.

  17. Alexander Browne said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 9:39 am

    Krishnapriyan: Do you know how early South Asian populations had access to other oils, like mustard or coconut oil?

    My understanding is that Arabic populations would have known olive oil once they reached the Mediterranean (Egypt, Levant, North Africa, Sicily, Spain) and probably from trade, but that in what is now Iraq* and Persia and I think Arabia itself the primary fat was from fat-tail sheep (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat-tailed_sheep).

    * I must type iMac, iPad and iOS too much at work, so my fingers started typing "iRaq".

  18. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 9:41 am

    From Conal Boyce:

    This 'Oil' post did make me aware of a kind of 'semantic field' that might be worth developing a bit, the one jointly occupied by yóu 油 (oil) and nì 膩 (oily) — as if to say that oili-ness deserves its own character (Accordingly, yóutiáo 油條 , to me, feels more like 'oil-cooked fritter' than 'oily fritter'.) And nì 膩 is an interesting word in its own right, I think, since it is almost always negative in connotation but suddenly shows a positive face in
    one usage only: nìyǒu 膩友 'very close friend'!

  19. Chris Button said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    @ Victor Mair

    I would think so. I’d put it down to the notion of a substance that is expressed or—to borrow the Arabic sense from “arak”—sweated out from something.

  20. Chris Button said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 10:52 am

    I might add that the association of 卣 with 由 is graphic as well as phonological. They are clearly depicting variations of a similar concepts. Meanwhile, 酉 is undeniably related to 卣 in terms of the word being represented, but graphically it is a wine jug of sorts.

  21. Coby said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 11:04 am

    Spanish also has the word óleo, which can mean either oil paint or the oil used in church rituals.

  22. Francesco Brighenti said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 12:04 pm

    Old Indo-Aryan tailá ʻsesame, oil in general’, a derivative of tilá ‘sesame’, is a word of unknown origin, though much has been made of a possible link between it and Proto-South Dravidian *eḷ(ḷu) ‘sesame’ (see, e.g., Burrow 1947), thought by some (e.g., Bedigian and Harlan 1986) to be a loan from Akkadian ellu. However, it is impossible to determine without further evidence whether the source of this term was Akkadian or Dravidian, or whether there was perhaps some third source. There is yet another Dravidian proto-form for ‘sesame (seed)’, *nū(v), which is not restricted to the family’s southern languages like the proto-form *eḷ(ḷu) is, and whose origin is likewise unknown.

    Another interesting Old Indo-Aryan word for ‘oil’ is snéha, meaning both ‘oiliness, unctuousness, fattiness, greasiness’ and ‘oil, grease, fat, any oleaginous substance’ on the one side, and ‘tenderness, love, attachment to, fondness or affection for’ on the other. It is a derivative of the verbal root snih- ‘to be moist, to be sticky’ > ‘to be attached to, to be fond of, to feel affection for, to be loving of’. The etymon of this Old Indo-Aryan root appears to be PIE *snóigwh-os ʻsnowʼ < *sneigwh- ‘to snow’. Old Indo-Aryan snih- would originally have meant ‘to remain lying down (like snow)’, ‘to be sticky (like snow)’. The meaning ‘snow’ is still retained in reflexes of this root in some Indo-Aryan (as well as in some Iranian) languages.

  23. Francesco Brighenti said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 12:06 pm

    CORRECTION: Old Indo-Aryan tailá ʻsesame *OIL*, oil in general’…

  24. Krishnapriyan said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 2:06 pm

    @Alexander Browne Sorry, I do not know the answer regarding mustard and coconut oils off the top of my head. Mustard could be native to South Asia and coconut seems to be a later import. sesame is used in funerary rites along with rice and would have been common in ancient India.

  25. Krishnapriyan said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 3:59 pm

    For prevalence of mustard seed, there is a famous Kisa Gotami story from the time of Buddha.

  26. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 4:08 pm

    It seems that Olive (橄榄) tree planting are known in China as starting at the time of Han Wudi, in 111 BC, according to the Third Century book written by Miao Changyan, the Sanfu Huangtu (三輔黃圖).


  27. Jamie said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 5:44 am

    We had a teacher at school who insisted that "pour oil on troubled water" meant "make things worse". His reasoning being that you not only had troubled water but now it was all covered in oil, too

  28. Nick Tursi said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 11:11 am

    Given the graphical and phonetic parallels between you 油 phonophore and you 酉, I wonder if temporally simultaneous occurrences of the two words are observed in Oracle Bone inscriptions. Or, if one of the two graphs came earlier, could it have represented both meanings (oil and brew) depending on context?

  29. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 12:27 pm

    There are clear instances of (antecedents of) the word you2 油 'oil' in Han-era texts, e.g. I see it's invoked as a fluid in 九章算術, but I don't see support for the idea it's much older than that… seems to be absent in "high classical" texts for instance. The glyph involved is needless to say old but isn't used for 'oil'; e.g. Shuowen says it writes the name of a river, with early inscriptions indeed so employing it. The most common classical application of the character appears to be you2ran2 油然 'spontaneously'. None of this is necessarily significant for the etymology of you2 'oil' — could be related to 'flow', 'extract', and/or 'brew'… or none of these.

  30. Chris Button said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 5:11 pm

    Yes, I think the identification of 由 in the oracle bones is based on the solid graphic evidence rather than any actual identification of an oil meaning. The one we do have clear semantic support for is 卣, which does clearly occur with it’s sense of alcohol/liquor. The misidentification of 酒 in the oracle-bones was discussed here:


    As always, the analyses by Takashima and the references therein are worth reading.

  31. Chris Button said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 10:13 pm


    To be clear, 卣 is referring to the wine vessel/jug.

    Incidentally, reconstructing ʁ- for 酉 seem to chime quite nicely with its Tai reflex in r-.

    It also helps to account for the relationship with the ts- of 酒 since where ʁ- gave j(w)- , it’s voiceless counterpart χ- gave s(w)- and ts- ~ s- is a well-attested alternation.

    when compared with how 巳 ɣ- and 子 ts- alternated (the calendrical sign 巳 being originally written with the form that became 子). Although the exact causes for the alternation require some work. I wonder if there are some typological parallels elsewhere.

  32. Pamela said,

    June 25, 2022 @ 10:38 am

    apparently "oil on troubled waters" goes back at least to Pliny the Elder, though it was probably already an old folk saying by then: https://wordhistories.net/2017/10/06/oil-on-troubled-waters/

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