“Petrol”

I never thought I’d see this one (BrE for AmE “gasoline” or “gas”) in these parts. Even the OED flatly states, “This sense is not in use in the U.S. and Canada,” which doesn’t leave much room for discussion. Google’s Ngram Viewer bears this out, showing use in American books of “gas,” “gasoline,” and “petrol.” I’d wager that the lion’s share of the “petrol” uses are in American editions of British books, or in dialogue spoken by a British person. (Bear in mind that “gas” includes references not only to the fuel but to substances that aren’t solid or liquid.)

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But look what just showed up in an e-mail from the very American Sierra Club.

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I checked the New York Times and found that the newspaper used “petrol” 32 times in 2018-19. But in all but one or two case it’s said or written by a Brit, Australian, etc. The One exception is a reference to Texas-brewed beer: “a musty, petrol-y offering aged with Texan white-wine grapes.” I imagine it was used here because “gassy” means something very different indeed.

18 responses to ““Petrol”

  1. I’ve often wondered if there is a US equivalent of the UK term “petrolhead” for a car fanatic.

  2. “a musty, petrol-y offering” – is that supposed to be a good description? Sounds bit bad to me, but drink tasting notes can be strange. This chap says he has “used “iron,” “bubble gum” and “petrol” to people’s befuddlement” in wine writing.

    “Gas” always seems a bit odd to most Brits, I think, since it is a liquid. But then we also have LPG or Liquid Petroleum Gas, which is all things to all people and doesn’t help.

    You’d think serious petrolheads would want to fuel their cars with rockoil… sounds funkier than petrol.

  3. Michawl Dolbear

    In reports BP used ‘Motor Spirit’ to avoid ambiguity and confusion.
    Asking directions to the nearest Gas station in Britain would be a very unwise idea since LPG and now Hydrogen is possible.

  4. Sadly, Britishisms are infiltrating North American language because somebody thinks they’re “cool”. Examples are “mobile” for cellphone and “CCTV” for surveillance video.

    • Nick L. Tipper

      The English language itself is a Britishism which has infiltrated North America. Where do you draw your line between established and infiltrating? The War of Independence? Noah Webster’s dictionary? The Beatles?

  5. olldyellr – “Sadly, Britishisms are infiltrating North American language”

    They are? If only there was some website that pointed these out.

    • You don’t need a website or Google. Just listen to the news and how people talk today. But if you like, .here is just one link.
      https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19670686
      Having grown up “over there” as a young teen before leaving, I adopted the “new world” enthusiastically, quickly dropping my English accent. At the time British immigrants were despised in Canada because they were taking all the government and municipal jobs, Later, during the the Beatlemania phase they were again very popular. I remember when the term “wanker” became popular among Americans when they didn’t even know its meaning. But I guess it goes both ways because I often see Facebook posts and memes from British sources that are clearly American.

      • Nick L. Tipper

        So you, a British person, went to Canada (we all miss you terribly, especially your insight) but when British linguistic usages go to Canada, that is wrong.

        The article you cited includes contributions by Ben Yagoda and this:
        ‘These days, the “balance of payments” language-wise is very much skewed the other way – with Americanisms used far more in Britain than the other way round…’

      • We were refugees in England and left because the country was not friendly to “foreigners”.

  6. Pingback: “CCTV” | Not One-Off Britishisms

  7. Petrol I worked on cruise ships out of Miami, Fl. as a casino dealer. An American passenger playing Black Jack casually asked what we Brits called Americans. The response, “An American is a Petrol,” was met with consternation and the need for a lengthy explanation. Americans fill cars with “gas”, when it is demonstrably a liquid, but my BJ player was incapable of making the quantum leap of equating “gas”, as an abbreviation of gasoline, with “petrol” as an abbreviation of petroleum. This did not auger well for the second part of the explanation. Mixed in with British English accents and dialects is a lexicon of slang, specifically Rhyming Slang, which typically uses the first word, of a two word phrase, to refer to someone / something that rhymes with the unsaid second word. “Petrol”, for example, would imply the unsaid “tank” and refer to the rhyming “Yank”: i.e., “Petrol” equals “Yank” [American]. Rhyming Slang is still alive and kicking in situations that approximate to its origins, such as cruise ship casinos, where British dealers can talk in English, but English speaking Americans won’t understand what is being said. My BJ player was fortunate not to have asked his question of an Australian dealer: Aussie Rhyming Slang for an American is a “Septic”.

  8. This reminds me of something that always puzzled me, which is why the British David Bowie wrote of “putting out the fire with gasoline”. I realise that petrol would not scan, but if a songwriter has a great line, won’t they compose a tune to fit it?

    Perhaps the answer is that Giorgio Moroder wrote the tune (and the rest of the Cat People score) and Bowie just had to come up with lyrics to fit. Or perhaps it was just that the biggest potential audience for the movie was American and there was concern that many Americans would not understand petrol.

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