Ethanol thrives on word tricks of persuasion

Bob Tippee

While ethanol claims a burgeoning share of the US fuel market, courtesy of taxpayers, a once-common name for gasoline-alcohol blends remains in relative disuse.

Remember gasohol?

It's what everyone called 90:10 gasoline-ethanol blends when they cruised into the motor fuel market aboard generous tax breaks in the 1980s.

Ethanol makers disliked the noun, though. Years ago, someone from a large ethanol maker called this writer to complain about repeated reference to "gasohol" in an editorial. Fuel so named had become difficult to sell, he explained. Motorists associated the term with engine-performance problems that many of them had experienced with gasoline-alcohol blends.

The gripe must have been part of a larger and apparently successful campaign. Despite ethanol's new popularity as a fuel additive, the word "gasohol" is colloquial at best.

Remember when labels first appeared on gasoline pumps to let consumers know which of them dispensed fuel containing ethanol?

Ethanol makers, fearful of a market preference for neat gasoline, protested the disclosure. They called it a sinister tactic of Big Oil.

Consumer attitudes about gasohol have reversed, of course—thanks somewhat to improvements in fuel chemistry but mostly to management of public opinion.

Americans have heard for years that ethanol in fuel offers supply and environmental advantages worthy of lavish public support. They apparently believe ethanol represents an energy panacea that costs nothing, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

So what a triumph of persuasion it was when Congress passed the ethanol mandate in the Energy Policy Act of 2005! What victory sparkled in President George W. Bush's call in January to quintuple the mandate!

Linguistic tricks persist. They're essential to the shaping of attitudes. In Texas and Ohio, Kroger stores are marketing (as opposed to selling much) E85, the 85:15 ethanol-gasoline blend that requires flex-fuel engines.

The grocery chain's gasoline pumps—the ones with traffic, as opposed to the E85 dispensers with giant ears of corn painted on their sides—sport this label: "Enriched by 10% ethanol."


It makes you wonder if, in the event of some hopefully improbable lapse in the produce department, Kroger would post signs touting lettuce as "Enlivened by bugs."

This column will appear next on May 4.

(Online Apr. 20, 2007; author's e-mail:

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