Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Chances are good that if you open your kitchen cabinets, you’ll find — standing tall alongside a cylinder of table salt, a half-used bag of flour, and maybe a sticky bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s — a plastic bottle filled with pale yellow canola oil. Chances are better that your grandparents couldn’t have said the same thing when they were your age: canola oil didn’t exist until the late 1970s, and it didn’t get its name until 1978.
According to the Canola Council of Canada (CCC), the word canola “is a contraction of Canada, where canola was developed, and ola, referring to oil.” That -ola ending was a branding trend in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though not necessarily used as a reference to oil. (Remember Shinola?) Canola, then, was a latecomer to that name game, though other -ola brands were still alive and well in the cooking oil field in 1978.
(The Mazola brand oil, for example, has been around since 1911. Mazola is a corn oil, and though I couldn’t verify this, I suspect the name stemmed from maize — that other name for corn — plus the oily –ola ending.)
Canola oil doesn’t come from pressing some “canola plant” — it is the oil derived from hybrid strains of the unfortunately named rapeseed. The first half of rapeseed is unrelated to the sexual assault type of rape: It comes from rapa, the Latin word for “turnip.” Rapeseed and turnips are classified in the same family (Brassica) along with cabbage, broccoli, and mustard plants.
(That other kind of rape finds its roots in the Latin verb rapere, “to seize by force, abduct.” Early uses of this rape in English usually referred to a theft or abduction and not to sexual assault. For example, the title of Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” which was first published in 1712, referred to the theft of a lock of hair.)
Etymological explorations so often encompass deep dives into linguistic history and are sometimes supported more by theory than known fact to deduce where a word began and how it evolved. Not so with canola; we know exactly how it came into being. Canola was coined by the Rapeseed Association of Canada (RAC) in 1978.
Ostensibly, the RAC (which became the CCC in 1980) created the word as a certification mark to indicate a strain of rapeseed oil that contains much lower levels of erucic acid than other types of rapeseed oil. But you have to imagine that there was some consideration of distancing the RAC and its product from that other rape. And the new name is probably more beneficial today even than it was 40 years ago: Rapeseed (especially if typed as an open compound) could be problematic for businesses’ internet search filters, and descriptions of products that contain rapeseed oil have led to some unfortunate machine translations into other languages.
Canola oil, it should be noted, is good for more than just cooking. Rapeseed oil was used as a lubricant in naval machinery during World War II, and a shortage of that oil was the catalyst that set off wide-scale development of it in Canada in the 1940s. Today, canola oil, aside from its place in your kitchen, is an important element in the some types of biofuels. And the solids that remain after the canola oil has been removed are a good source of protein in animal feed.
Featured image: A bright yellow field of rapeseed that will one day be processed into canola oil, by Irma Ferreira Photography / Shutterstock.
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