Goats, galloons, gas stations, and Gorsuch: The origin of “chevron”

Confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominees—like Neil Gorsuch’s this week in the Senate—give obscure judicial terms a rare moment in the public spotlight. Consider super precedent, who fights baddies with the power of past decisions. Or stare decisis, which sounds like a long-lost sister to Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” And then there’s Chevron deference. Clearly, that means refueling your tank at a Chevron gas station over any of its competitors, right?

Chevron

Chevron deference is a doctrine that courts will defer to a regulatory agency’s  (e.g., the EPA) reading of a statute it enforces unless that interpretation is considered unreasonable. The phrase comes from the landmark ruling of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., a 1984 Supreme Court case. Chevron U.S.A.? Yes, that’s Chevron Chevron, the oil company.

The case was decided on June 25. Interestingly enough, just two days before, the gas giant’s parent organization settled on the name Chevron Corporation after a series of acquisitions and mergers. Chevron Corporation marks only one of a long line of name changes for the company, founded as the Pacific Oil Company in 1879, bought out by John Rockefeller’s colossus, Standard Oil, in 1900, and taking the Standard Oil name in 1906.

According to the website for Chevron’s El Segundo Refinery, then-Standard Oil introduced a “three-bar chevron…to identify the company’s service stations” in 1931. Three-bar chevrons?

As military personnel will know, three-bar chevrons mark the rank of sergeants in the US Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force. They wear them as badges sewn on their sleeves. Historically, these V-shaped symbols could point up or down on military uniforms until a regulation standardized the upward orientation of their point in 1905.

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Historic 1920s US Army stripes. (Flying Tiger Antiques)

The El Segundo Refinery website continues: “During World War II, the famous ‘winged V’ was adopted for the fourth letter in ‘Chevron,’ to suggest the company’s deep commitment to the war effort,” with V being for victory.

But before the Second World War, why did Standard Oil choose chevrons for its branding? It’s unclear from my initial research, but patriotism—and wordplay—seems to be at work. When it debuted the logo, the bars colored in red, white, and blue, the US was in the clutch of the Great Depression. Perhaps the patriotic and military associations were intended to signal American might, honor, order, a common cause, or self-sacrifice during those trying times. Perhaps the chevrons’ use in the armed services also riffed on service station, a term that emerged in the 1920s.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates service station to 1921 (in Scientific American), the same year it first attests (Outing magazine). The dictionary finds gas station in the Arizona-based Casa Grande Bulletin in 1914. And the earliest? Petrol station. This now-European-sounding term was an American original, according to the OED, appearing in Wisconsin’s Sheboygan Press in July 1912.

Militaries and police forcers adopted chevrons, and other such insignia, from their earlier use in medieval heraldry and chivalry, variously honoring families and knights. But as for the word chevron?

It begins as an architectural term for a “beam” or “rafter.” The OED first finds it as a foreign term in the ~1300 Custumals of Battle Abbey. A custumal documented various customs, especially those that had legal force, of a local area. And Battle Abbey is (the remains of) a Benedictine abbey built on the site where the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, which brought French rule into England—and so much of the French language, including the word chevron.

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Rafters, aka chevrons. (Pixabay)

Chevron comes directly from the French chevron, originally naming a “rafter” in a house. The two arms of the chevron symbol come together like two wooden beams holding up the ceilings of old houses. Chevron has gone on, in French and English, to name punctuation marks (guillemets, angle brackets) the circumflex in French spelling (e.g., hôtel, “hotel,” which shows words that lost their original s’s, among things), and those black arrows on yellow road signs indicating a sharp turn is ahead (chevron alignment).  Anatomy, geology, and aerospace also use chevron as a specialized term.

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Show some respect. (Free images)

As for the origin of the French chevron? It derives from the Latin caper: “goat.” The angled joint of rafters, so it’s said, resembles the prominent crook of a goat’s legs. From goats and galloons to gas stations and Gorsuch? I think chevron deserves a little etymological deference.

m ∫ r ∫

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