‘Is it sponsored by the oil people?’ my husband asked as we drove into London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, past a sign: ‘ULEZ.’ Naturally his words reflected mental confusion, but I had some sympathy for his presumption that the acronym was pronounced to rhyme with the French verb culer, ‘make sternway’. By oil he was not referring to anything to do with engines but to what we both remember as Oil of Ulay. In different countries it was called Oil of Olay, Oil of Olaz or Oil of Olan. Suddenly, at the millennium it became Olay, just before Jif became Cif. Cif cleans the kitchen floor. Olay is for the skin and used to be advertised as producing ‘a younger-looking you’. It was invented by a South African chemist called Graham Wulff (1916-2008).
What, though, or where is Ulay or Olay? It reminds me of Sordello in Browning’s long poem of the name, which Carlyle said his wife had read ‘without being able to make out whether “Sordello” was a man, or a city, or a book’.
Wulff had success in treating burns during the second world war with a moisturiser. But I don’t know that Olay had anything in common with the treatment. Nor is it certain that the name Olay derives from lanolin. I have seen a newspaper reference to Wulff developing a ‘tropical skin treatment’. This is a comical error. The paper meant topical, not in the sense ‘up-to-date’, but ‘applicable to a place’ (such as the face or hands), not for internal consumption.