The etymology according to Dictionary.com:

coined 1865 as gasolene, from gas (q.v.) + chemical suffix -ine/-ene. current spelling is 1871; shortened form gas first recorded Amer.Eng. 1905. Gas station first recorded 1932.

Why was it originally called "gasoline"?

2 Answers 2


The Oxford English Dictionary writes that there is another step in the etymology--ol:

Etymology: < gas n.1 + -ol suffix (as in benzol n.) + -ene comb. form, -ine suffix1.

The root gas has a meaning which doesn't necessarily mean gaseous in general. It is a specific type of gas. The definition which I think applies here is:

Gas of a kind suitable to be burnt for illuminating or heating purposes; originally = coal-gas n., but now including (a) various artificial mixtures consisting chiefly of carburetted hydrogen, and distinguished by defining words indicating the source from which they are obtained, as water-gas, oil-gas, etc.; and (b) = natural gas n.).

Then, the ol suffix indicated that they were using an oil-based form:

Forming the names of oils and oil-derived compounds (in systematic use in Chem. now replaced by -ole suffix2), as benzol, furfurol, indol (now usually indole), myrrol, pyrrol (now usually pyrrole).

Then the chemical suffix ene or ine was added. So gasoline, when broken down into its parts, perfectly describes what petroleum is: an oil form of a natural gas. The OED writes that the first usage of gasolene was in 1865, and was already being used to refer to what the UK call petrol.

  • 3
    "The root gas... doesn't necessarily mean gaseous." -- Yes, it does mean something gaseous (gaseous being derived from gas). The definition quoted, from the OED, is a subdefinition of gas for a specific type of gas, as can be seen in the definition itself, which defines it directly in terms of "gas" -- that is, the earlier established general meaning of gas, an aeriform fluid (a gaseous fluid). The examples in the definition all refer to gaseous materials (which can be burned).
    – mgkrebbs
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 4:09
  • @mgkrebbs Edited.
    – user10893
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 7:15

Because it's highly volatile and combustible--and therefore becomes gaseous easily.

edit: Contrary to the charge in the comments that this is "unsupported speculation," there are in fact many examples from the early years of petroleum distillation of the word "gasoline" being defined specifically by its volatility and flammability:

1898: "Gasoline--sometimes, but incorrectly, called naphtha--is one of the lighter products obtained during the distillation of crude petroleum. The nature of the substance is such that it slowly changes to a vapor, or gas, at ordinary temperatures, and if left in an open vessel soon entirely disappears by evaporation."

1878: "The term 'gasoline' shall mean and include all such petroleum as gives off any inflammable vapour at a temperature not less than 73 degrees Fahrenheit."

1870:"The liquids used for producing gas in portable machines are known as Gasoline, Naptha, Benzine, Liquid Gas, Auroral Oil, and by various other names. They are, without exception, highly volatile and, of necessity, inflammable and explosive, and therefore dangerous to the last degree. If they were not they would not make gas."

1865: "As the oil flows from the condenser it is divided into three portions for different uses. The lightest, that comes over first, is called gasolene. This cannot be used in lamps with safety, as it rises in vapor so freely that it mixes with the atmospheric air to form an explosive compound."

1870: "It was proven at the trial that benzine is the product from the distillation of coal oil or petroleum, the most volatile of which is called gasoline..."

1886: "Gasolin is only a trade name to designate a mixture of the various low-boiling petroleum series."

  • 9
    this is unsupported speculation, and I happen to disagree with it. -1 Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 22:09
  • 2
    The key which everybody seems to have missed is in the 1886 citation. I.E. its a trade name thought up by someone to market product (I think a cleaning fluid for removing grease) and as such does not really mean anything. Its like asking "was Dove soap originally made from birds". Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 6:22
  • @James Anderson - Except that the 1865 reference is twenty years earlier from Scientific American, is closer to the modern usage, and strongly implies that this is a word specialists use for a particular kind of oil.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 14:55
  • TIL Ethanol is gas because it's volatile, and quickly evaporates.
    – Goodwine
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 14:37

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