The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 18 Dec 2022

Minor etymological victory

A few days ago I was thinking about Rosneft (Росне́фть), the Russian national oil company. The “Ros” is obviously short for Rossiya, the Russian word for Russia, but what is neft?

“Hmm,” I wondered. “Maybe it is akin to naphtha?”

Yes! Ultimately both words are from Persian naft, which is the Old Persian word for petroleum. Then the Greeks borrowed it as νάφθα (naphtha) and the Russians, via Turkish. Petroleum is neft in many other languages, not just the ones you would expect like Azeri, Dari, and Turkmen, but also Finnish, French, Hebrew, and Japanese.

Sometimes I guess this stuff and it's just wrong, but it's fun when I get it right. I love puzzles!

[ Addendum 20230208: Tod McQuillin informs me that the Japanese word for petroleum is not related to naphtha; he says it is 石油 /sekiyu/ (literally "rock oil") or オイル /oiru/. The word I was thinking of was ナフサ /nafusa/ which M. McQuillin says means naphtha, not petroleum. (M. McQuillin also supposed that the word is borrowed from English, which I agree seems likely.)

I think my source for the original claim was this list of translations on Wiktionary. It is labeled as a list of words meaning “naturally occurring liquid petroleum”, and includes ナフサ and also entries purporting to be Finish, French, and Hebrew. I did not verify any of the the claims in Wiktionary, which could be many varieties of incorrect. ]

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