Tocharian words for oil

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We've had two consecutive posts on oil-related words (see "Selected readings" below).  julie lee made this comment on the first of the two:

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

[From Middle Welsh olew, form Old Welsh oleu, from Proto-Brythonic *olew, from Vulgar Latin *olevum, from Latin oleum (oil).] (source)

julie's observation inspired me to ask Doug Adams whether there were any Tocharian words for oil.  He replied:

There are two (sort of),  There are both ṣalype and ṣmare.  The first is 'oil (particularly sesame oil); salve, ointment' (also oil in a lamp), the second is, as a noun, 'oil' (as in a lamp) and, as an adjective, 'smooth, even, slippery.'  The first is etymologically connected to English salve and the second to English smear.

I followed up:

Could the initial ṣ- in ṣalype and ṣmare have a similar morphological word-forming function?

To which Doug responded:

No, it just happens that the original *s was followed by an *e or was part of an initial cluster followed by *e:  *selpos and *smerwo- respectively.

Georges Pinault contributed:

I can only agree with the answer(s) of Douglas Adams. Besides, Tocharian had also other terms (which are unrelated) for oily products, fat, etc., used for medical purposes. In any case,  the initial sibilant of these two nouns belong to different inherited lexemes (which are not motivated inside Tocharian), and cannot be deemed as a word-forming morpheme.

Michael Weiss added:


I don't think the ṣ is a morpheme. Both of these words have excellent IE etymologies and in both cases the  ṣ is the result of the palatalization of s before a front vowel. ṣalype goes back to *selbhos (though the palatalization of the l is a little puzzling) And ṣmare goes back to *smerw-os as Douglas Adams says.   You could maybe say that the s- was a phonestheme representing something slippery or fatty (like sl- in Germanic), but I don't think there's a whole lot more support for that and there certainly isn't evidence for -elbhos and -meru- as anything.

2. (the next morning)

The proto-form of ṣalype is *selp(h2?)os. Most forms point to a final p.  There is a variant elphos attested in Greek which together with Ved. sarpíṣ might point to an h2 which could explain the aspirate in Greek and the i in Vedic, but that is also a bit problematic, hence the question mark.. There is no reason to reconstruct a *bh as I unthinkingly wrote last night.

Also if you are looking for another s-initial fat word there is Greek stéar 'fat' and Hittite sakan 'oil'.

There must be some other explanation for julie lee's keen observation.


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 7:53 am

    From an anonymous correspondent:

    Perhaps, if the Tocharian word for oil is of Greek origins, it may come from the time of the Hellenization of the Sakas in the Tarim. So the Han use of "oil" started mainly while they came in contact with them?

    K. Latte, ed., Hesychii, Alexandrini Lexicon (Copenhagen 1953).

    [παλαίστρα]· ὅπου οἱ παῖδες ἀλείφονται. (“Palaestra, where children rub themselves down [with oil]),” 3.138.


    IPA(key): /a.loi̯.pʰɛ̌ː/ → /a.lyˈɸi/ → /a.liˈfi/


    ᾰ̓λοιφή • (aloiphḗ) f (genitive ᾰ̓λοιφῆς); first declension

    unguent, ointment, salve

  2. Chris Button said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 8:24 am

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think 由/油 had an *l- onset (my * ʁ- overlaps with Schuessler’s *j- to a degree—I don’t reconstruct *j- since I follow Pulleyblank in assuming that it automatically received a glottallic onset). I do, however, think that the phonetic series overlaps with some words with lateral onsets.

  3. Chris Button said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 4:23 pm

    I should probably add that the coda of 由/油 may well not have been originally rounded either—-in all likelihood that was a secondary development. Something like an original *ʁəːʁʔ is more likely.

    As such I think looking for anything corresponding to *lew (or some such form) is probably not going to work.

  4. Chris Button said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 9:36 pm

    A reconstruction of 由 as *ʁəːʁʔ also possibly provides some phonological motivation for any graphic confusion with 古 *kaːɣʔ

  5. Chris Button said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 10:00 pm

    Or rather 古 *kaɣʔ (i.e. the surface length would have been on the coda rather than the vowel but it was neutralized by the glottal stop)

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 4:16 pm

    Fom Don Ringe:

    The sibilant is just part of the word; the PIE roots were *selp- and *smer-, and since *s was probably the commonest PIE consonant, the fact that it happens to appear word-initially in both is unremarkable.

  7. martin schwartz said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 6:39 pm

    THe Sinitic speculation involves comparison with words for OLIVE oil, Lat. olīva, Gr *elaiwon 'olive', which may be a Mediterranean substratic word, although OChSl loj (loi) 'tallow' has been
    used with these to concoct an IE etymology.
    @Anonymous: Gr. palaistra is a gym for wrestling.
    One doesn't need Hesychios for Gr. aleiph- 'to anoint', 'put oil on'. which is a different etymological matter from 'olive' etc. Here Hesychios' testimony cannot be doubted, but for some other instances, I cannot obstain from punning on his name:
    "A gloss from Hesychios
    makes me be ANHCYXOC,
    that is, an uneasy cuss".
    Martin Schwartz

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 3:57 pm

    From an anonymous colleague:


    No doubt about Olive (elaiwon) to be linked with the Chinese word for oil, instead of the Tocharian aleiph, which makes both terms even closer to the Palaestra, where the athletes rubbed themselves with…olive oil…

    The numerous palestran iconography of Central Asia (and beyond, in the far East, yes) demonstrates that this divine substance was used where Greek athletic education was taking part. So olive and oil are not really dividable in their ritualistic and Hellenistic meanings.

    "Η βιωτική τῃ παλαιστικᾑ ομοιοτέρα ήπερ τῃ ορχηστικᾑ κατά το προς τα εμπίπτοντα και ού προεγνωσμένα έτοιμος και απτώς εστάναι."

  9. martin schwartz said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 10:09 pm

    @Anonymous colleague: aleiph- Tocharian and not Greek??? Olive oil was obviously used to lubricate wresters in Greece; the extent of its importation to Central Asia (and China???) deserves a separate study, no?
    My point was that oleum etc. is etymologically referent to
    the olive, and etyma of other oily substances and their implementation should be discussed separately.
    Martin Schwartz

  10. Chris Button said,

    June 25, 2022 @ 7:29 am

    In terms of semantic field for the graphic and phonological connection between 由 and 卣, I think we’re looking at a connection like “sap” with Latin “sapa” (new wine).

  11. Chris Button said,

    June 25, 2022 @ 6:34 pm

    Given the possibility of Old Chinese *ʁəːʁʔ and the desire to find a loan source (although that may not be necessary), it occurs to me that we might turn to Arabic ‘araq again. Perhaps 液 is a doublet? We’ve seen that with 狗 and 犬 for example, which are loans from the same PIE root at different time depths.

  12. Chris Button said,

    June 26, 2022 @ 8:40 am

    A nice example of the misapplication of *l- comes from 冑 "helmet" (with what seems to be a confusion of 古 with 由). It has 由 as it's "new" phonetic, but 冑's later d- onset is not a reflex of *l- since 冑 is etymologically related to 兜 with its *t- onset.

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