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Dishonesty or coincidence? The origin of the word ‘gasoline’

New research, published in the March 2012 update of the Oxford English Dictionary, shows that gasoline might have its origins not in gas as has long been thought (it is a liquid after all) but rather in the name of a London publisher. It then reached something close to its present form in the murky world of nineteenth-century counterfeiting.

By 1850 gas lighting was common in the cities for the rich, but elsewhere there were only candles and oil lamps and darkness. The oil came from whales but the whaling industry could not provide enough so entrepreneurs were searching for something new.

It’s new! It’s wonderful! It’s Cazeline!

Herodotus mentions crude oil. Throughout history it has seeped from the earth to be used for heating, warfare, and quack medicines, but significant production did not begin until 1859 when oil was struck in Pennsylvania. John Cassell, publisher, coffee merchant, and social campaigner, was soon importing the new and wonderful stuff to London. New and wonderful stuff demands a new and wonderful word so Cassell devised one, inspired presumably by his own name: cazeline. On 27 November 1862 he placed an advertisement in The Times:

The Patent Cazeline Oil, safe, economical, and brilliant … possesses all the requisites which have so long been desired as a means of powerful artificial light.

This is the earliest occurrence of the word to have been found.

Cassell was soon supplying shops across England and Ireland. Business boomed. Then, in Ireland, sales began mysteriously to fall away. Cassell discovered a shopkeeper in Dublin, Samuel Boyd, selling counterfeit cazeline and wrote to him to ask him to stop. Boyd did not reply but instead went through his stock, changing with a single dash of his pen, every ‘C’ into a ‘G’: gazeline was born.

Spelling matters

Cassell v. Boyd was heard by the Master of the Rolls in Dublin in 1865. Boyd claimed he had coined gazeline himself in 1862, from the French word gasogène (which is a device for producing fizzy water), and ordered his own labels. But, he said, the labels had been misprinted. The coincidence of Boyd’s printers producing in error the name of the market leader was more than the judge could believe and he ruled for Cassell.

Yet cazeline did not endure. Its latest mention so far found is from 1920. It was gazeline (or gasoline) which flourished.

What the world was waiting for?

Perhaps this story shows that a nervous counterfeiter with the law closing around him could plunge more deeply into the mysterious well springs from which new words come than an honest, if self-promoting, businessman. The word Boyd found was the word that the world was ready to use.

Gasolene was first used in an advert in the British newspaper, the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle in 1863. The first use of gasoline to be found in America is in an 1864 Act of Congress which declared a tax on the oil. Channels between Ireland and America were then, as they are now, numerous, broad, and free flowing. Whether the word was independently invented in America or whether it travelled there from Dublin we cannot yet say but we are left admiring the creativity, if not the honesty, of the first man to utter our word gasoline.

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