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The Origins of Olive Oil in Language

Updated on May 9, 2020
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Cammy is a freelance writer, nature and animal lover, Spanish bilingual, and an artist.

There are 26 types of olives.
There are 26 types of olives.

The History of the Ubiquitous Olive

The words "olive oil" don't sound particularly interesting in English. But did you know about its origins in Indo-European languages? The olive, however consumed, was a staple in Mediterranean diets ever since the invention of agriculture. Olive oil was invented and became such a necessary item that its use in certain languages is directly connected to its development as a product.

For English speakers, "olive oil" is simply the adjective "olive" describing the type of "oil," a noun. But this special oil has its origins in Europe and North Africa. The major civilizations of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Cretans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs then spread the olive crop by trading with other nations.

Olive oil can be used topically.
Olive oil can be used topically.

Uses of the Olive

Olives of various varieties became a widespread crop and had many uses: eaten whole, cooked, and crushed into oil for cooking, dressing, medicine, lamps, or anointing the skin. Since public baths and athletic events were popular, particularly in ancient Greece, olive oil in those instances was in high demand. It was even used to burn the original Olympic torch!

These days, olive oil is most frequently used for cooking pasta, meat and veggies or as a salad dressing. It is even an alternative to butter for making certain baked goods, such as brownies. After cooking, however, olive oil is most commonly used for the skin, face, hair and nails, whether applied directly or used as an ingredient in cosmetics.

Olive oil is an international treasure.
Olive oil is an international treasure. | Source

Making Olives Palatable

To be honest, raw olives have a very bitter taste that makes them unpleasant to eat as-is. So how did ancient peoples discover how to put them on the table?

One way was to turn them into olive oil, the process of obtaining liquid fat by pressing whole olives. It's what happens to 90% of the world's olives. Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest-quality since it is unrefined, and retains its taste and nutritional value. And the "lighter" the olive oil, the less olive-y taste it has.

Ancient peoples also had techniques for removing the bitter flavor from the olives. The Romans first soaked them in several changes of water, a process which took many months to complete. They then brined them, but that was only a little quicker. Finally, when they added lye from wood ashes (sodium hydroxide) they discovered they could eat the washed olives in a matter of hours.

A peace symbol that isn't the peace symbol.
A peace symbol that isn't the peace symbol.

Olive Oil in Arabic and Spanish

Olive trees are a common sight not only in Greece but in Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Olives and olive oil are a major export trade in those countries. It is no accident, then, that the olive branch quickly became a symbol of peace or victory in Europe and the Arab world, and still is to this day. That's why the words for "olive oil" in Arabic read like almost like an honorific title or an accidental alliteration. In Arabic it's called zeit az-zeitun which literally translates to "oil olive." The Arabic word for "oil" is zait. Az-zait from the Arabic-speaking Moors therefore meant "juice of the olive."

Additionally, the Spanish language was influenced by the Moors who introduced hundreds of Arabic words. They kept the Arabic word for "olive" (zeitun) in the form of aceituna, and the word for "oil" (az-zeit) in the form of aceite. However, rather than combining the two for "olive oil," they called it aceite de oliva.

Olive Oil in Romance Languages

So why the difference in "olive" and "oil"? The Spanish word for "olive" is oliva and comes from Latin. If we look at the origins of the word oil in Romance languages, the word was oleum in Latin and oli in Romance languages. English speakers can then easily see how our "olive oil" came about.

I've seen fields and fields of olive trees while visiting Morocco.
I've seen fields and fields of olive trees while visiting Morocco.

Because olive trees were (and are) such a common sight in the Mediterranean world, the people developed a relationship with the olive crop and their own way of referring to the oil made from it. With olive oil being such an important staple, it's no wonder that the words for olive and oil are so closely related in Spanish and Arabic. And English speakers can thank ancient civilizations for bringing it into our language.

© 2018 Cammy Cañizal

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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for telling us about the origins of the words olive oil. We use light, regular and extra virgin olive oils in our home on a regular basis.

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