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Terminators: Wordplays for Ideas & Insights

Oil and Olive Oil

Oil is a great word covering food, industry and religion. Oil comes from the Latin 'oleum' meaning olive oil, from the Greek 'elaia' meaning 'olive'. The genus name for olive is "Olea." Ironically, in this light 'olive oil' is redundant. Only for the past few generations has the word "oil" implied petroleum--literally 'rock oil.'

Olive oil is not only a food. It is a fuel, and a holy ointment. It is the midnight oil burned by scholars. It is the fuel celebrated in Hannuka. It is the unction used to annoint babies at baptisms, kings at coronations, and the dying at last rites. And the olive branch is the foremost symbol of an offer of peace.

Oleo lives in the language in oleomargarine ("oleo" for short), and in linoleum (from 'Linum' the genus of linseed or flax), an example of a vegetable oil (linseed oil) used to make an industrial product.

Petroleum is a fossil fuel. It is the product of once-living things long extinct. But we get vegetable oils from plants living today, and these crops can be changed by the tools of biotechnology. Soybeans and canola are examples of North American crops that plant breeders have bred for changed composition of oils, for use in food, in lubricants, and in detergents.

Finally, the first US patent for a living thing was issued in 1980 for a microbe specifically developed to clean up oil spills--petroleum, that is. The power to claim patents for living organisms is a crucial factor in the story of US biotechnology.

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Linum (flax)



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