In the summer, the Canadian country driver between Kelowna and Kenora or perhaps between Cornwall and Petrolia may happen to pass great fields of little yellow flowers. Beneath each green stem lies a bulb of the Brassica kind, akin to a turnip. But it is the seeds that are the crop. They are not the kinds of seeds one crunches in granola, nor quite like the linseeds that go into linoleum. No, they are a great part of the Canadian identity and the Canadian kitchen, and if (as the turn of phrase goes) you know shit from Shinola, you know they’re canola.
It’s almost an Italian-sounding name, isn’t it, canola? But you’re unlikely to find canola with canoli or canneloni; Italians use cream and butter for fat for the one and might have some olive oil (and more) with the other. Nor is it akin to NOLA, New Orleans, Louisiana, home of many fine foods such as muffuletta sandwiches. Canola is also not like payola but in a can – though the same ola that has a certain phonaesthemic presence in granola, payola, Shinola, and Victrola (and originally pianola) no doubt influenced the formation of this word. So, too, we may expect, did the ola that is truly morphemic in cupola, aureola, and lineola.
That second ola is canola‘s one vague link with Latin. For more Latin we would need to go back to the root – and I don’t mean that bulb of Brassica. The Latin name for this kind of plant (or turnips generally) was more commonly rapum, from which we get the rape that is in rapeseed – an entirely different rape from the one signifying sexual assault. But how could anyone see the one word and not think of the other? No wonder, when Keith Downey and Baldur R. Stefansson bred a variety of rape in the 1970s that was low in undesirable erucic acid, they took their description Canadian oil, low acid and made an acronym of it – the first half a syllable acronym (as in SoHo and SoWeTo), the second half an initial acronym (as in NASA, RADAR, and TASER): Canola (because CanOLA is tacky and canola oil is slippery).
Yes, the can in canola is short for Canadian, like so many cans in our can-do country. And its popular oil is emblematically Canadian, even though canola is now grown in other countries too. If, as Pierre Berton once said, a Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe, then surely a Canadian is also someone who knows how to make food with canola. (Not that it’s difficult, unlike that canoe thing.)
Thanks to “Upstater” for asking about canola and rape via a comment on triticale.