One of the most conspicuous differences in AmE vs BrE usage is probably that of gasoline (gas) vs petrol to refer to:

  • a light fuel oil that is obtained by distilling petroleum and used in internal-combustion engines. (ODO)

From the oxforddictionaries.com blog, Gasoline:

  • 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.

  • I couldn't find any, but is there a historical, possibly etymological reason for the difference in usage of such common terms?
  • 1
    Etymonline has "gasoline, 1895, from French pétrol (1892)" which is interesting because nowadays (or at least, when I was at school), the classic schoolboy howler with French is to mix up the word for car fuel with the word for hair oil.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 4, 2015 at 11:29
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    Nice question, amazing that no one has ever thought to ask before
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 4, 2015 at 14:23
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    Related, but only loosely: Why does gasoline have the word “gas” in it, if it's never gaseous?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 4, 2015 at 14:24
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    @Mari-LouA simchona's answer seems very related.
    – 7caifyi
    Dec 4, 2015 at 15:17
  • Early on in the history of the distillation of petroleum, the refineries were not always successful in perfectly separating kerosene from gasoline. Kerosene lamps sometimes exploded after they were filled with a mixture of kerosene that contained a bit of gasolene. Ultimately, the refinery practices were standardized, to yield non-explosive, pure kerosene. Standard Oil was the result. Dec 6, 2015 at 1:47

5 Answers 5


The word "gasoline" originated by 1864.

US Patent No. 45,568, dated 20 December 1864, explains:

One of the products obtained from the distillation of petroleum is a colorless liquid having an ethereal odor and being the lightest in specific gravity of all known liquids. This material is known now in commerce by the term gasoline.

The word "petrol" is much older than "gasoline".

The 1634 A discourse of military discipline devided into three boockes, declaringe the partes and sufficiencie ordained in a private souldier, and in each officer; servinge in the infantery, till the election and office of the captaine generall; and the laste booke treatinge of fire-wourckes of rare executiones by sea and lande, as alsoe of firtifasions mentions petrol twice, the first instance being:

take three partes of fine and strong pouder, five of solpher, eighte of refined saltpeter, or eight and haulfe, afterwardes mingell all thies mixtures well togither til yove corporate them, and put to them alitle petrol oyle, so muche that they corporate togither, and let them drie well in the sun, and beinge well dried, fill the pattar with the saied mixtures, for the tienge of thies pattares

The 1661 Glossographia, or, A dictionary interpreting all such hard words of whatsoever language now used in our refined English tongue with etymologies, definitions and historical observations on the same : also the terms of divinity, law, physick, mathematicks and other arts and sciences explicated has an entry:

Petrol(petroleum) a kind of Marle or Chaulky Clay, or rather a substance strained out of the natural Bitumen: It is for the most part white, but sometimes black, and being once set on fire can hardly be quenched; see Napthe.

The 1743 Cyclopedia has a section on petrol which begins:

Petrol then is a black liquid bitumen, only differing by its liquidity from other bitumens, as asphaltum, jet, &c. See BITUMEN. The naphtha, which is either a liquid, or at least a very soft bitumen, is much the same with petrol.

However, the above original meaning did not refer to a distilled product. The term "petrol" was redefined to refer to a distilled product by Bussenius and Eisenstück in 1860, as explained in The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. Later references such as the 1883 Dictionary of Chemistry and the Allied Branches of Other Sciences specify that "petrol" (according to the meaning of Bussenius and Eisenstück) is C8H10.

The 1899 The Automotor Pocket Book of Automotive Formulae and Commercial Intelligence shows that, at least in the United Kingdom, the meaning of "petrol" had changed to a distilled product; however, it did not have the same meaning as "gasoline". Instead, "gasoline" was the lightest fraction of petrol.


This liquid is one of the products obtained by the distillation of petroleum, and forms one of the naphtha series of hydrocarbons. Petrol, known also as "Light Oil," "Mineral Spirit," "Moto-car Spirit," "Moto-Essenee," "Petroline," "Moto-Naphtha" is an exceedingly volatile and inflammable liquid, hence it readily evaporates, and an explosive mixture of air and petrol vapour is easily formed. It forms a clean, compact and very efficient source of energy for internal combustion motors. The principal varieties of petrol are :

[begin table listing specific gravities]

Gasoline .. .. .. .. .. .. 0.650

Motor Car Spirit .. .. .. .. .. 0.680

Benzoline .. .. .. .. .. .. 0.700

Benzine .. .. .. .. .. .. 0.720

The same distinction between "petrol" and "gasoline" is retained in the 1902 version of the book.

Similarly, the 29 December 1904 article in the journal Nature, Oils for Motor-Cars maintains this distinction between "petrol" and "gasoline".

The article uses the term "petrol" as a generic term for light fractions of oil, but says:

Of these, gasoline has the lowest density

One of the first mentions of the word "petrol" being used in England as the equivalent of American "gasoline" is in the "Daily Consular and Trade Reports" (1905) of Washington article Automobiles and Gasoline in England:

There are very few American motor cars in the Liverpool district, and those few are made by a company which has recently been advertising extensively. Gasoline (or petrol, as it is called in England) is retailed at from 1 shilling (24 cents) to 1 shilling and 6 pence (36 cents) per gallon

In the 11 July 1908 issue of The Autocar a letter from Fredrick Simms was published which claimed that he, when introducing the Daimler motor to England in 1890, visited Carless, Capel and Leonard and suggested the term "petrol" specifically for the specific gravity fraction 0.680 to 0.700. He writes that the term "petrol" was then adopted by three companies: 1. Carless, Capel and Leonard, 2. Simms and Co., and 3. Daimler Motor Syndicate Co. He writes that he chose the word "petrol" so that it would sound safe.

There are three slightly earlier articles in this volume of The Autocar all arguing over the origin of the current meaning of "petrol" (see pages 817, 888 and 928 (position of Carless, Capel and Leonard)).


It all started in the first half of the XIX century, when the suffix -ene (Ancient Greek root = "daughter of") was used to refer to a molecule containing one fewer hydrogen atoms than the molecule being modified, thus, ethyl-ene: C2H4 (since 1795 called olefiant gas) was the "daughter of ethyl": C2H5

The suffix -ene was used to form names of organic compounds with a C=C double bond; in 1837 "asphaltène" (or pétrolène) was coined by French chemist Boussingault for an oxygenated hydro-carbon when he noticed that the distillation residue of some bitumens had asphalt-like properties and OED records both asphaltene and petrolene in 1837-38 in specialized Journals. In 1830 Dr Christinson had discovered paraffin and named it petroline in 1850 another Scottish chemist James Young found that by slow-distilling cannel coal he could obtain a useful liquid from it, which he named "paraffine oil" because at low temperatures it congealed into a substance resembling paraffin wax. (Note that thee suffixe -ine, -in, ene were still used without the specific technical meaning).


was a fuel oil distilled from petroleum (intermediate in viscosity and boiling point between paraffin oil and lubricating oils) which was added to fuel gases to increase their calorific value, it is recorded since 1839:

"Some of the vapor of this gas-oil is mixed with the olefiant gas in the general products of decomposition... and have a higher illuminating power".

By the end of the century the gas was derived directly from crude oil and gas oil was renamed Diesel oil (up to 21 carbon atoms per molecule) because its main use was in injection engines

petrol vs. gasolene/ gasoline

In 1825 Michael Faraday identified benzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon (C6H6), from the oily residue derived from the production of illuminating gas, giving it the name bicarburet of hydrogen, in 1833, Eilhard Mitscherlich produced it distillating benzoic acid and gave the compound the name benzin, two years later it is already recorded in English as benzin[e] and was used till the end of the century when the current form became more popular.

In 1864 Nikolaus Otto founded the first internal combustion engine production company, the fuel was a relatively volatile hydrocarbon obtained from coal gas it was called benzin, too and this term has been adopted in Italian (benzina) and in other languages. Before the advent of cars, petrol was a waste product, being too volatile, and was called petroleum spirit (Fr: essence de pétrole, It: spirito di petrolio)

In 1895 car fuel is called rectified petroleum or simply petrol or benzoline, (OED) and in 1900 the Daily News tells us that petrol is still considered the colloquial form of petroleum spirit

In the same year (The New Review) the term gasolene which until then had been employed for burning oil is used as a synonym of petrol:

"Of the petroleum vehicle...it may be said that it owes much of its extreme lightness to its modesty in the matter of fuel. A few pints of gasolene or rectified petroleum will suffice it for five or six hours".

The two terms gasoline/petrol are equally popular in BE until 1930, when petrol station becomes the usual form. In AE it was never popular.

gasol-ene was derived from gas-o[i]l which was so called because it (originally) produced the burning/illuminating gas: it was easy to assimilate it to its main component benz-ene/ine, so the volatile spirit from gas-oil was called gasol-ene/ine or petrol[eum spirit], one form remaining popular in America and one in UK. The explanation added to OED seems far-fetched because a) the product cazeline was just a TM, and it kept its name way after the advent of gasoline:

1920 H. Moore Liquid Fuels (ed. 2) 193 "Mineral Burning Oils.—Suitable for burning with a wick, e.g., belmontine oil, cazeline oil, colzarine oil, mineral colza oil, mineral seal oil, mineral sperm oil, pyronaphtha".

and, above all, b) since it was launched in Nov. 1862, it is quite unlikely that only one year later the American Congress would adopt it in an official document.


The following post from Quora suggests that petrol, originally a brand name, became common usage in the U.K. for gasoline:

  • The difference between petrol and gasoline is only one of naming. They are the same substances with largely the same standards. Historically, "gasoline" in British and most commonwealth (ex. Canada) countries referred to a derivative of petroleum used for lamp oil (i.e., kerosene). In the United States and many other places in the world, "gasoline" referred to any kind of motor fuel. For example, methanol and ethanol might have been referred to as gasolines. Eventually people standardized on a single type of motor fuel made from straight run naphtha. "Gasoline" as a term has been around since 1871.

  • The word "petrol" actually is a brand name used to refer to the generic product gasoline, much like "fridge" is used as shorthand for "Frigidaire," or the word "kleenex" is used to refer to tissue paper. The brand name was suggested by the early chemical engineer Frederick Richard Simms, and first used in 1892 by the British wholesaler Carless, Capel & Leonard. Previously, "petrol" was used as a shorthand for "petroleum" - i.e., the unrefined crude oil. CC&L's competitors used the generic term "motor spirit" at least until the 1930s but the name "petrol" stuck in the end.

  • Basically, all of the British language peeves are unaware that actually, their preferred term is a brand name, and Americans' preferred term is not only more generic, but actually attested earlier. Countries with a connection to the German world (mainly Scandinavian but also Russia, Poland, New Guinea, and, bizarrely, Catalan) call the same type of fuel some variation of benzin, after benzene, a component in the fuel. So it's not just we Yanks that have a different name.

  • There is a 1960 article "The Origin of the word Petrol" which says "These facts, I think, effectively dispose of the theory that the word 'Petrol' was coined either by Simms..." books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Apr 22, 2017 at 16:37
  • "A London company of petroleum chemists, Carless Capel and Leonard (who are still going strong), claim the word was coined by their Mr. Leonard in 1891. In that year Frederick Simms, of Daimler, approached the company for a special motor launch fuel" books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Apr 22, 2017 at 17:09
  • From Wikipedia: 'The name Frigidaire or its antecedent Frigerator may be the origin of the widely used English word fridge, although more likely simply an abbreviation of refrigerator which is a word known to have been used as early as 1611.' I certainly don't dispute the word coming from "Fridgidaire", but I had actually never heard of that brand until today. I always say "fridge", and I've always assumed it's merely just a shortening of "refrigerator". I don't believe I've ever seen a "Frigidaire" in my life.
    – Dog Lover
    Apr 27, 2017 at 1:28
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    @Josh You need to cite the author in your post, old bean. Far more important than naming the website!! Apr 28, 2017 at 13:47
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    You are using the Quora answer as your answer (I realise you're not trying to claim you wrote the Quora post), rather than using the Quora post as the basis for your own answer. This answer would be greatly improved if you rewrote it to be original with references and pertinent quotes. Jun 11, 2017 at 17:01

'Petrol' is short for 'petroleum', which means 'rock oil', e.g. fossil oil. 'Gasoline' means 'gas oil' because it is the lightest oil fractionated from petroleum. 'Kerosine' means 'wax oil', which is less volatile than gasoline.

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    What we call kerosene in the United States does not produce an explosive vapor at standard temperature and pressure, while gasoline does produce an explosive vapor (gas) at the same temperature and pressure. Ami might be onto something here. Dec 6, 2015 at 1:25

The blog in the OP is making a mistake in equating Cazeline with gasoline.

Cazeline was the opposite of gasoline, in that the purpose of Cazeline was to be non-explosive lamp oil, and the process of making Cazoline was to remove the more volatile, low specific gravity, fractions of petroleum which would be gasoline.

See the 8 November 1862 article Cazoline-The New Light in a American Railway Journal, reprinting an article from Cassel Family Paper, which explains that Cazoline is American oil with the low specific gravity components removed to make it safe for oil lamps.

Later references, such as Commercial Organic Analysis (1901), explain that Cazoline has a specific gravity of 0.805. This is much higher than gasoline and more like kerosene.

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