Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Inessential Oils

Can we make a motion to abandon a phrase that has been bothering me? Like, do we have that authority? That agency? Is there someone we can write?

The object of my ire today is the word pair “essential oil.” Not that those two words, when used in conjunction, somehow flaunt the rules of grammar to the point that they scrape across the ridges of my brain in a violent manner, but I feel they’re misleading to the point that most people who buy essential oils without understanding what they actually are. In American English, we use the word “essential” most often to mean “integral” or “of the utmost importance.” “To understand trigonometry, it’s essential that you have a thorough understanding of basic algebra.” “To survive the night, it’s important that your board your windows and drape yourself in garlic.” “To use the bathroom correctly, it’s essential that you remove your pants first.”

In this sense, the phrase “essential oil” could easily be interpreted as meaning something that, if lacking, would bring about one’s downfall. For example, Patty Jo Patchouli might think that if she doesn’t lube her face and arms in a certain herbal-scented goo, those years of unprotected sun exposure will show and her hippie face will fall off, John Lennon glasses and all. I can only imagine some unwary soul walking into an aromatherapy shop, seeing all the products labeled “essential” and buying out the store. I swear it’s true: People wouldn’t take the time to actually ponder “essential oils” on an etymological level and realize that the “essential” is actually the adjectival version of “essence.” “It’s amazing I made it this long without them,” this person would think. Because essential oils are just that: the essence of a thing. cloves, lemon, mint, cedar, ylang-ylang what have you. Unless one has some bizarre medical condition that can only be treated by topical application of cassia-infused liquid, their being will remain altogether intact without these oils that are misleadingly labeled “essential.”

Seriously, I think calling these products something else will ultimately work out for the better of mankind. At some point, some word-ignorant child of the earth will be pushed to the breaking point when deprived of his chamomile oil and will end up erroneously thinking that he’s in a life and death situation.

Can’t we save this guy the grief and eventual embarrassment?


  1. I know you're not completely serious, but one of the meanings of "essential" is "of, relating to, or constituting essence", so the phrase makes sense to me.

  2. You know this, I know this. But I maintain that the vast majority of people glancing over such products in a store don't.

  3. i have ALWAYS thought the same exact thing about the term 'essential oil.'

  4. Well, thank god I'm not the only one.