Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

The Fate of Rapeseed Oil

Bottle of canola oilOccasionally, the associations of a word become more powerful than its meaning. The history of rapeseed oil provides a glorious illustration of this fact.
The oil from the rape, a variety of turnip, has been in use since the 13th century. It was used as a lubricant called simply rape-oil until the mid 20th century. During World War II it was widely used as a lubricant for steam engines in ships.

Over the centuries, however, several words have merged into the spelling of rape, including one referring to  the administrative districts of Sussex, England, a usage that continued until the end of the 19th century. Another, referring to the refuse of wine-making came from French râpe “grape stalk” from Old French rasper “to scrape”, source of English rasp.

The verb (from Latin rapere “to seize”, the origin of English raptor) orginally simply meant “to force”, as in The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope. However, as it made its grimy way to its current meaning, all the homophones of the verb receded into the shadows.

The oil of the rape (from Latin rapa “turnip”, Rübe in German), however, was discovered to be low in cholesterol by Canadians after World War II, and they developed a type that was not only fit but healthy for human consumption. By the middle of the 20th century, however, marketing this oil even as “rapeseed oil”, was out of the question due to the new overbearing sense of the verb. Call in the marketers.

The result was that a new name was created for this very healthy oil from the phrase “Can(ada) o(il,) l(ow) a(cid)”, which is to say, canola.

4 Responses to “The Fate of Rapeseed Oil”

  1. Brian Johnson Says:

    The variety of the rape plant that produced seeds low erucic acid was not developed until 1974, and the main motivation in coining the “canola” name for the oil from this variety is to distinguish it from the oil made from all the other rape varieties that produce oil high in erucic acid that is associated with health problems.

    The negative connotations of the word “rape” appear to me to have been less of a factor in choosing the name than the need to distinguish the product from an otherwise similarly named product that is not a desirable food product.

  2. eduFire » Blogs Says:

    […] #13 – Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog – More linguistics than foreign language learning, Dr. Goodword is interesting to follow nonetheless. Reading this blog gives you an increased sense of appreciation for the richness of language (e.g., this recent post on rapeseed oil) which is an important thing for all aspiring polyglots to have. […]

  3. nan Says:

    I visited England, from the US, in 1993 and noticed all of the fields of yellow. I asked why they grow so much mustard. I was informed that it was the rapeseed plant and that it could be used as a salad oil or an engine oil. If that is true, why are we not having our farmers plant this, instead of paying them not to plant? If this can be used for engine oil, wouldn’t that decrease our dependence on the middle east for oil as far as car engines, and other engines are concerned? How many other uses for this lubricant could be changed over??

  4. Dorothy VS Says:

    Some years back, I read an article Google published that told about the bad dnews of the Rapeseed plant that was being used to make Canola Oil. That particular article said that the Rapeseed plant was so poisonous that ‘not even a Bug would touch it’. According to this article, there are at least, 2 kinds of Rapeseed plants – one being NOT OK for Human Consumption & the other OK and/or useful in more than one way. Personally I will NOT use/or buy any consumeable product that is made with Canola Oil. To use Canola Oil for Industrial purposes is one thing BUT to EAT? any product made with or added to, I absolutely will not. This is MY decision but I still find it hard to believe that there is such a wide difference of opinion when it comes to the consumption of Canola Oil.

Leave a Reply