Is the Latin word oleum ("oil") related to oliva ("olive")? If yes, how?

The two words look similar, but oleum does not look like a regular derivative to me. Many dictionaries mention that oleum means "oil" or "olive oil", but that could be just because olive oil was the most common oil in antiquity. Another option that comes to mind is that oleum comes from olere due to its smell.

Lewis and Short does not discuss etymology within Latin, but links to a Greek word. In Greek the similarity is more obvious (ἔλαιον=oleum and ἔλαιος=oliva), but it is not clear if oleum and oliva were borrowed from Greek separately, if oleum was derived from oliva in Latin, or if something else happened.


1 Answer 1


The current communis opinio is both Latin words oleum and oliva were borrowed from Greek, which, in its turn, are of Pre-Greek origin (e.g. Beekes 2009/2016, Ernout & Meillet 2001); cf. Miller 2014 "there are cultural and phonological reasons for thinking Latin borrowed it from Greek" (p. 31).

Miller 2014 writes that

"Since Attic-Ionic lost /w/ prehistorically, Greek words borrowed into Latin with v /w/ are either from a West Greek (Doric) dialect, or possibly early enough to have been Mycenaean loans" (p.31).

Latin oleum < *olēwom < *eleiwom < Gk. *élaiwon (Miller 2014), cf. ἔλαιον

Latin oliva < Gk. *elaíwā (Beekes 2009/2016), cf. ἐλαία

All of the sound changes above are well-known and described in any historical Latin grammar worth reading, e.g. Weiss 2009/2011 (the first book I grabbed from my bookshelves).

  • *e > o/_ɫ (p. 139);
  • ai > ei > e (> i) (a-weakening, Weiss tells us, precedes monophthongization, p. 120);
  • *ei > *ẹ̄ > e (p. 143) etc.

As for a possible Etruscan intermediary hypothesis suggested by TKR (was it borrowed directly from Greek or via Etruscan?), this is highly speculative. As Clackson and Horrocks 2007/2011 write,

"All languages of central Italy participate in borrowing words for material artefacts from Greek. Often we may be unable to tell whether a word came directly from Greek or via the medium of another language: Greek *kulίkʰna 'cup' borrowed as Latin culigna, Etruscan culicna, Oscan culchina/culcfna" (p. 46; emphasis mine — Alex B.).

For more information we will need to look it up in De Simone 1968–1970 and Watmough 1997 — and I will. I encourage you to read these books too!

  • 2
    Does Miller mean "from Greek as opposed to Etruscan" or some other specific language that has been proposed? (Btw, the order of "Gk. olaiwom < Gk. olēwom" should be the other way around -- and neither form is Greek; the el > ol change is Latin. The same intermediate steps could be added for olīva; its Greek source is elaíwā, note accent and vowel length.)
    – TKR
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 4:11
  • Any particular reason for "cf. ἐλαιόω" rather than ἔλαιον, which is surely the source? Btw, the change ai > ei isn't clear to me (and I can't find a relevant discussion in Weiss) -- wouldn't it normally show up as ae?
    – TKR
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 3:02
  • 1
    @TKR it's funny - i just noticed it five min ago on my iPad and just turned on my laptop to fix it, thinking how you're going to mention this. :) Fixing it right now. In the future, feel free to fix obvious typos!
    – Alex B.
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 3:07
  • Will do! I assumed it was a typo but didn't change it because I can't access the Brill dictionary from home (which may be a reason to link to open-access sites like Perseus, btw).
    – TKR
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 3:28
  • 2
    Oh, of course -- it's just regular weakening. Should have thought of that. Thanks!
    – TKR
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 3:50

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