By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Although I have written at least two articles on the misconception in Nigerian journalistic circles that “premium motor spirit” is the proper name for petrol, scores of people keep writing to ask me to comment on the habitual practice in Nigerian news writing to identify petrol by the phrase “premium motor spirit otherwise known as petrol.”
Clearly, many Nigerian English speakers have refused to be influenced by this peculiar Nigerian journalistic usage, which is both surprising and refreshing because language use in the mass media tends to quickly percolate into and influence usage patterns in the larger society. I have personally never come across any everyday Nigerian who refers to petrol as “premium motor spirit.” Only Nigerian journalists seem to call petrol “premium motor spirit.” So we might safely refer to the expression as part of the repertoire of Nigerian journalese, that is, an expressive style specific to Nigerian journalism.
But what is the origin of the phrase “premium motor spirit”? Why are Nigerian journalists enamored with it? And why is it a strange turn of phrase that is unintelligible to most English speakers outside Nigeria? Answers to these questions will be drawn mostly from my previous articles on the subject. But I have added fresh facts that I uncovered in the intervening period between the last time I wrote on it and now.
Usage of “Premium Motor Spirit”
Every Nigerian newspaper refers to petrol as “premium motor spirit” or PMS. In fact, “petrol” is typically represented as the alias of “premium motor spirit.” In other words, Nigerian newspapers mislead their readers into thinking that everyone in the English-speaking world recognizes “premium motor spirit” as the real name for “petrol.”
Take, for instance, this recent lead from Premium Times, arguably Nigeria’s best-written (online) newspaper: “Premium Motor Spirit, otherwise known as petrol, is selling at N500 per litre in the black market in Kaduna State as government began enforcement of ban on sale of petroleum products in jerry cans.”
Well, only Nigerian newspapers, and the people who are influenced by them, call petrol “premium motor spirit.” It’s an entirely meaningless phrase to native English speakers in America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It also makes no sense to English speakers in India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Commonwealth countries where English is spoken as a second language.
In 2012, I asked several of my American friends, colleagues, and students what meaning the phrase “premium motor spirit” evoked in them. They all said they had never encountered the phrase and had no clue what it meant.
I searched the 520-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to see if any American English speaker has ever used the term. I got no matching record. I also searched the 400-million-word Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) to find out if any American ever used the expression between 1810 and 2009. Again, no luck.
I thought, perhaps, the phrase would be familiar to British English speakers, so I searched the British National Corpus to see if there is any record of its use in British English. No luck, either.
Finally, I searched the 1.9-billion-word Corpus of Global Web-Based English, which indexes English usage in 20 different English-speaking countries. I had some luck this time around. I got 53 matches. But of the 53 matches for “premium motor spirit” that turned up in the database, 49 came from Nigerian English users, 3 from Ghanaian English users, and 1 from a Kenyan newspaper.
When I followed the link to the Ghanaian sites that used “premium motor spirit,” I found that the writers were Nigerians who were based in Ghana. The fact that Kenya is the only other country where “premium motor spirit” was used, even if only once, as an alternative name for “petrol” alerted me to the fact that the word probably has British English roots.
Origins of “Motor Spirit”
My hunch was right. Although the term enjoys no currency in contemporary British English (as evidenced from its complete absence from the British National Corpus), it actually started life in Britain some 200 years ago.
Carless, Capel & Leonard (now renamed Petrochem Carless Ltd), one of Britain’s first oil companies, was the first to use the term “petrol” in English, in 1870, to refer to refined petroleum products, which weren’t used to power cars at the time.
By the 1930s when petrol became the fuel used in internal combustion engines, Carless, Capel & Leonard applied to trademark “petrol” so that the company’s competitors (who frequently used the term “motor spirit” to refer to their product) won’t be able to call their product “petrol.” But the application was denied because the use of “petrol” to refer to refined petroleum products, derived from the French petrole (ultimately from Medieval Latin petroleum, which literally means “rock oil,” from the Latin petra, which means rock or stone, and oleum, which means oil.) had become widespread by the 1930s in Britain.
With the denial of Carless, Capel & Leonard’s application to trademark “petrol,” other British companies that had referred to their product as “motor spirit” freely adopted “petrol” as the name of choice for their product, and “motor spirit” fell into disuse.
“Premium” wasn’t an invariable lexical component of the name. The “premium” in the name refers to the grade of the product. There are three major grades of petrol in the UK: ordinary unleaded, premium or super unleaded, and leaded four star. In the US, petrol, which is called gasoline or gas, has the following grades: Regular, Mid-grade or Plus, and Premium. Saudi Arabia has “premium” and “super premium” grades of petrol. Many other countries have several names for different grades of petrol.
So “premium” is one of at least three adjectives that could modify “motor spirit” when “motor spirit” enjoyed currency in Britain. There could conceivably have existed “ordinary unleaded motor spirit” or “leaded four star motor spirit”—or whatever names existed at the time for grades of motor spirit in Britain.
In other words, calling petrol “premium motor spirit” is the same thing as calling petrol “premium petrol” now, even though there are other grades of the product. Interestingly, Nigeria is one of only a few countries in the world where petrol is ungraded. Maybe that is why our journalists assume that every petrol is of a premium grade and therefore call petrol “premium motor spirit” (never mind that “motor spirit” is obsolete).
Premium Motor Spirit a Scientific Name?
A few people have asked me if “premium motor spirit” is perhaps the scientific name for petrol since Nigerian oil industry experts, including academic researchers in petroleum studies, liberally use it. No, it’s not. There isn’t one specific scientific name for petrol.
As I said earlier, “motor spirit” is the archaic British English name for petrol, and “premium” indicates the grade of the “motor spirit.” Today, most British speakers have no idea what “motor spirit” means, and would be even more puzzled by the permanent modification of the term with “premium.”
It’s mystifying that Nigerian journalists—and academics— are the only people still wedded to a phrase that died in Britain in the 1930s.
Note that different countries have different names for petrol. Most people know that Americans and Canadians call it gasoline— or gas for shot. Germans and people who are influenced by German linguistic traditions call it “benzin,” which is derived from “benzene,” a constituent part of petrol. The French from whom the British borrowed “petrol,” now call it “essence.” Spanish-speaking people call it “gasolina.”
I also find it intriguing that Nigerians use the American English “kerosene” instead of the British English “paraffin” as the term of choice for lamp oil.
Maybe Nigeria should formally adopt “motor spirit” as its national name for petrol. After all, petrol is the “spirit” that moves “motors,” which is the alternative name for vehicles in British and Nigerian English.