Petroleum Historical Terminology


The original version of this article was created by Francesco Gerali, 2019 Elizabeth & Emerson Pugh Scholar in Residence at the IEEE History Center

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Naphtha, Condensate-Light oil, (85° - 35° API) Language Notes/Etymology
Naptu; Naphtu Akkadian Name found on a 2200 b.c. clay table and referred to an ardent and flaming liquid light petroleum
Naphta/Nepht Aramaic Light fraction of petroleum coming from the ground for natural distillation/exudation
Naphtha Latin Roman age
Napht/Naft Arabic Antiquity
Neft Farsi Antiquity
Naptik Persian Antiquity
Naphte French Medieval age
White Petroleum/True Naphta English Referred to a very good quality of light petroleum found in Asia, but principally coming from Persia
Naphtha English Medieval age
Naphta Alba/Naphta Nigra Latin Used by natural philosophers in 16th-17th centuries
Nafta Italian Very light petroleum used raw in lamps and to produce varnishes
Olio di Santa Caterina/ Oglio di Sasso/Oglio Santo/Olio Montesibile/Olei Montezibini/ Medieval Latin/Italian (archaic)/Italian Medieval age. Province of Modena, Italian Northern Apennines
Yellow/Italian Petroleum English Very light naphtha found in the province of Piacenza, Italian Northern Apennines
Olio di Amiano Italian Medieval age. Miano, Medesano, Parma, below the Italian Northern Apennines. Also found as Olio of Miano or Huile of Amian in French literature (1700-1800)
Casinghead Gasoline English Obsolete term (pre-20th century) for very light naphtha
Natural Gasoline English Obsolete term (pre-20th century) for very light naphtha
Petroleum, Medium oil – Heavy oil, (20° - 40° API) Language Notes/Etymology
Oleum Latin Roman age
Petroleum Latin Roman age. Term also found since the 9th century in the English literature
Pétrole/Huile French Medieval age
Earth Oil/Petroleum English Medieval/Modern age
Petrolio/Crudo/Greggio Italian Terminology used since the 19th century
Mineral Oil/Liquid Bitumen English Used as synonymous for Petroleum or Rock Oil
Radinace Persian Antiquity
Oleum Petrol Medieval Latin Used by natural philosophers in the 16th-17th centuries
Oleum Petronicum Medieval Latin Used by natural philosophers in the 16th-17th centuries
Oleo Simile Medieval Latin Used by natural philosophers in the 16th-17th centuries
Olio/Oleo di Sasso Italian Used by natural philosophers in the 16th-17th centuries
Olio di Santa Barbara Italian Used by natural philosophers in the 16th-17th centuries
Font de l’Oli French (1700) Oil spring in the city of Gabian, France
Gabian/Red Petroleum English Used since the Medieval Age to refer to the reddish-thick variety of petroleum found in Gabian, France, and in the Province of Modena in Italy
Blunt von Thyrsus/ Tyrschen-Oel Early New High German Oil springs located in Seefeld (Tyrol), Austria
Pétréol French (1700)
Petroglio Italian (1700)
Petrol British English Before the 20th century, a synonym for petroleum
Pet-Oly English (1700)
Rock-Oil/Ethereal Fossil Oil English (1700) Also used as synonymous of petroleum
Seneca Oil American English New York state, named by the Native Americans Seneca Tribe
Colombio Spanish Found floating in the Maracaibo Lake, Perù
Jugo del la Tierra Spanish Term in use from the medieval age
Barbados Petroleum English From the Pitch Lake in the Barbados Islands
Bitumen, Heavy oil , (10° - 25° API) Language Notes/Etymology
Maltha Latin Term generally referred to viscous bitumen
Bitumen liquidum Medieval Latin Used by natural philosophers in 16th-17th centuries
Bitumen/bitumine Latin Roman age
Iddü/Kupru Akkadian Antiquity
Qar Iraqi Arabic Antiquity
Sayali Iraqi Arabic Antiquity
Zift Iraqi Arabic Antiquity
Esir Sumerian Likely the first mineral oil used by humans
Qir/Kir Arab From the Greek Keros (wax)
G’atu; Batu Sanskrit Mineral oil with the texture of the shellac resin
Bitume/Bitumi Italian
Bitume French
Bitumen English
Swedish Tar English Sweden
Stockolm Tar English Sweden. The term Stockholm Tar instead is synonymous of Pine tar
Baechel-Brunn Early New High German (Pitch Fountain) Alsace, Lampertsloch
Chapopotli Aztec Used in Mexico to refer in general terms to pitch, tar, and thickened bitumen
Travers Asphalte French Val de Travers, Switzerland
Gum Bed English Canada
Pissasphaltos Latin Mixture of bitumen and pitch found in the region of Apollonia, Greece
Bituminous Mastic English
Pegola Italian (1600) Used also to refer to asphalts
Barbados Bitumen/Barbados Tar/Indian Cedar-Pitch Oil/Barbados Pitch English From the Pitch Lake in the Barbados Islands
Asphalt, Extra (ultra) heavy oil, (0° - 10° API) Language Notes/Etymology
Asphaltos Greek
Asphaltus Latin
Asfalto Italian
Asphalte French
Asphaltum/Asphalt English
Bitume di Giudea/Bitumen Judaicum Italian/Latin
Brea Spanish Found in Mexico, Perù and Venezuela
Gagates Latin Known before the Roman Age. Called also Gagate Stones or Jet in Anglophone environment and were considered a petrified mineral oil
Mastic English
LNG/CNG, (78° - 90° API) Language Notes/Etymology
Gas English Term introduced by Joan Baptista van Helmont in 1648
Aria (Gaz) Infiammabile delle Paludi Italian Swamp gas (later acknowledged as methane). Introduced by Alessandro Volta in 1776
Gas Naturale Italian Natural Gas. Introduced by Lazzaro Spallanzani in 1795
Gas idrogeno (idrogene) carbonato Italian Hydrogen carbonate gas. Introduced by Lazzaro Spallanzani in 1795
Methan German Methane. Introduced by August Wilhelm von Hofmann in 1865
Fontane/Sorgenti Ardenti Italian Burning Springs
Atam Arab Burning Springs
Ho-tsing Chinese Burning Springs
Burning Springs English Flaming gaseous outcrops
Natural Petroleum Wax Language Notes/Etymology
Ozokerite/Ozocerite English The name derives from the Greek oze, stench, and kero, wax. It is a naturally-occurring odoriferous mineral wax or paraffin. Found in large quantities chiefly in Moldavia (mined since the 20th century), in the past centuries was the most known and diffused petroleum wax. Among the natural philosopher it was generally called Earth Wax
Hatchettite English A natural paraffin wax variety of Ozokerite/Ozocerite, it is considered identical to evenkite
Ambrite English An amorphous, greasy, yellowish gray oxygenated waxy hydrocarbon which occurs in masses in Auckland, New Zealand
Ader Wax English Crude ozokerite in leafy masses
Adipocerite English A synonym for hatchettite
Evenkite English Named for the Evenkia district, Russia (Siberian region in Krasnoyarsk Krai), where it is found
Zietrisikite English Mineral was/paraffin resembling ozokerite in most physical characters and in composition
Bituminous Clays/Shales Language Notes/Etymology
Oil Shales/Bituminous Shales English Sedimentary rocks capable of producing, through pyrolysis, a certain amount of oil. They are constituted by an inorganic fraction (from which the names clay-shale and clayey carbonates) and an organic component (kerogen) coming mainly from seaweed. The oil shales take different names depending on the type of product they can supply, their porosity, the organic matter contained, or the location where they are extracted
Cannel Coal/Candle Coal/Gas Coal English Coal that produces a flame like that of a candle when burned
Kerosene Shales English New South Wales and Tasmania (Australia)
Algal Coal English Also found as Boghead coal
Bituminite English
Kerogen Shales English
Black Shales English
Tasmanite English Alga Tasmanite (Tasmania)
Boghead Coal English Boghead, village in West Lotian, Scotland. Other synonymous used today are Boghedite and Torbanite
Torbanite English Torbane Hill, hill in the proximity of Boghead, West Lotian, Scotland
Coorongite English Coorong, South Australia
Ampelitis Latin Bituminous earth described since the antiquity (Pliny, Dioscorides, and late Georg Agricola), sometimes as a crystal black pitch similar to coal. In the 18th century it was considered a variety of channel coal (bituminous shale) similar to those found in Lancashire, UK
Albertite English
Gilsonite English Term used since the 19th century. Today is called Uintahite

Other terms related to petroleum in the historical literature

Refined Products Language Notes/Etymology
Carbon Oil English Introduced by Samuel Kier, PA, USA to refer to the lamp fuel he refined from crude petroleum (patented in 1851)
Coal Oil English Lamp fuel produced from coal in the USA and Europe. The term remained randomly in the popular use in the 19th century even well petroleum became the only feedstock to refine lamp fuels
Camphenes English Lamp fuel produced in Europe from the asphalts of Pechelbronn (France) and the Val de Treves (Switzerland) already before the diffusion of petroleum. Apparently, Camphenes was already in use before the introduction of Camphine, the combinations of alcohol, turpentine and camphor oil, in the United States
Cleaners’ Solvent English In the early 20th century, a well refined petroleum fraction boiling between 300°F. and 400°F. and primarily intended for use in dry cleaning
Kerosene (1) English Introduced by Abraham Gessner, Canada, in 1849 to name the lamp fuel he obtained from bituminous substances from Trinidad (following from Albertite). The name derives from a combination of the Greek words that stand for wax and oil
Kerosene (2) English Since 1860s, used to name all the lamp fuels refined from liquid petroleum
Kerosene (3) English Synonymous of aviation fuel (propeller and jet engines). Kerosene for lamps was widely used to fuel plane engines in the early years of aviation. The name remained in the common language even to refer to customized variation conceived specifically for aviation uses. Kerosene and Kerosene/gasoline blends were also fuelling the firsts jet engines until the late 1940s. Informally, the name survives still today (Aviation Kerosene)
Paraffin Oil English Introduced in Great Britain by James Young (1840s) then patented in the US (1850) and known as Coal Oil. Produced from coal and bituminous clays
Paraffin Wax/Petroleum Wax English Waxy organic substance present in crude oil and consisting of high molecular weight crystalline saturated hydrocarbons. Term introduced by Karl Ludwig von Reichenbach (Germany) in 1833
Petrol English Since the 1910s, used mainly in British speaking countries to refer to petroleum spirit, light petroleum, motor oil, benzine: all were synonymous of gasoline
Petrolatum/Soft Petroleum Ointment English Paraffin wax/petroleum wax produced in many forms and density. Used as antiseptic, emollient, ointment base, grease and lubricant. It was commercialized under several proprietary names, e.g. Adeps Petrolei, Adepsine Oil, Amalie, Atoleine, and Atolin, Petronol, and Petrosapol
Vaseline French Refined paraffin wax/petroleum wax
Vasellina Italian Refined paraffin wax/petroleum wax
Yellow Ozokerine English A product resembling vaseline, but less homogeneous. Refined from crude ozokerite, it is used in ointments and pomades
Yellow Wax English A viscous, semi-solid, difficultly volatile substance obtained on distillation of still residuum. It contains anthracene and other hydrocarbons of complex structure
Petroleum and gas seepages/spontaneous outcrops Language Notes/Etymology
Oil & Gas Seepages/ Oil & Gas Seeps English Surface outcropping of mineral oil
Vulcani di Fango Italian Mud volcanoes associated with gas and petroleum emission at high temperature
Salse/Sarse Italian/Modena dialect Pseudo-volcanic hydro-clay low temperature emissions accompanied by methane, salt water, petroleum
Bollitori Italian Boilers. Small mud volcanoes erupting small mixes of mud and natural gas
Maqlûb Arabic In Italian Maccalube and used in Sicily to name the local Salse


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