Guppy to Guillotin: The Namesakes of Words Author Philip Dodd traveled the world to find out how common words like guppy, saxophone and even the Mercedes got their names. The stories he uncovered in The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium are fascinating, funny and sometimes tragic.
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Guppy to Guillotin: The Namesakes of Words

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Guppy to Guillotin: The Namesakes of Words

Guppy to Guillotin: The Namesakes of Words

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Quick. What fish was named for a West Indian clergyman? It's a simple trivia question, but the answer sent author Philip Dodd on a quest that crossed oceans and spanned continents. What is the mystery fish? The humble guppy. Dodd's book is called "The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium: From Joseph P. Frisbie to Roy Jacuzzi; How Everyday Items Were Named for Extraordinary People."

And Philip Dodd is in our studios in London. Hello, there.

Mr. PHILIP DODD (Author): Hello, Andrea.

SEABROOK: So let's start with the opening scene here. You're at home. You're watching TV. The show is called "University Challenge." It's a quiz show like "Jeopardy" here, I guess. And that fated question stumps everyone.

Mr. DODD: That's right. And the reason it really caught my attention was that right next to the sofa, about two feet to my left, was our tank of fish full of guppies. And I just had a little eureka moment that I looked at it and I thought I never ever knew they were named after a human being. It had never crossed my mind.

And I started checking out this Robert Lechmere Guppy and I got intrigued into his life and then that led me to think, well, here's something I can pursue, because there're little corners of human life that through - usually through fate or some kind of serendipity these people have been immortalized in our language.

SEABROOK: Let's start with the Jacuzzi. You actually tracked down its inventor, Roy Jacuzzi.

Mr. DODD: Roy is alive and well, bubbling with ideas still. He's a great guy. He lives out in California, and what I loved about meeting Roy was finding out how important family tradition was. He comes from this family of Italian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in the 1900s. There were seven brothers and six sisters. And they were imaginative, inventive people, very good with their hands. And they eventually ended up in California, where they started developing pumps for, you know, work in the fruit farms there. They also were early airplane builders.


Mr. DODD: In fact, they built a plane - this is sort of 1910 - it's called the Jacuzzi J7, which was one of the world's first passenger planes.

And Roy is third generation. He came out of college in the mid-'60s in California. He'd been studying design and engineering. And he looked at one of the products the family had developed, which was a - the only way I can really describe it is like a little outboard motor that you would put in your bath to swirl the waters in a domestic bath around.

And Roy looked at that and I think he just felt, you know, the time and place - mid-'60s in California - that it could be a whole lot more fun. And he developed those - you know those swivel jets that you get in the side of a Jacuzzi? That's really his specific invention. Put that together, and in a funny way I think he really invented a lifestyle.

SEABROOK: One of the things that's so wonderful about this book is that it's not just a compilation of trivia - you know, this was named after this guy and the sandwich and this and that. But you really dig into the lives of these people. You travel to their homes. You went back to the Jacuzzi's home village in Italy.

Mr. DODD: That was something that was very important to me. I didn't want it to be a book that I researched from behind my desk. I have a little phrase that I use about the book - that it's a post-Google book. And that's not being derogatory about Google, because that's a fantastic research tool. I use it all the time, of course. But I think that as a writer, then you need to go one step further.

SEABROOK: Now, you and your book - with that first spark - with the Reverend Guppy himself, who was apparently quite a character and not actually a clergyman at all.

Mr. DODD: That's right. He was a British guy, and he ran away from home probably in the 1840s and ended up in Trinidad in his early 20s and settled down and he became a pillar of the establishment. And like a lot of Victorian gentlemen, he was very interested in the natural world. And he spent a lot of time collecting samples.

He got a fresh water fish from a little stream north of Port of Spain and sent it to the British museum in London.

SEABROOK: And let me break in and say I love the part where you talk about actually finding the guppy - the fish that the Reverend Guppy sent to the British museum. They still have it in a glass jar.

Mr. DODD: In a tiny little glass jar. And they brought out this tiny little jar and tipped the contents into a dish and started prodding it with a little wooden stick. And I thought, hang on a minute, this is the guppy of all guppies. You know, are we allowed to do this? And they said, no, it's fine.

Now, the fish expert at the British museum at the time named it - as often happens - after the person who found it. Then a few years the fish experts realized - or somebody told them - that the fish had actually already been named. So he had to revert it to an earlier Latin name. But the guppy stuck.

And eventually I discovered that he wasn't a reverend. He's often cited as being a Reverend Guppy. And I found a photo of him with a high collar, looked like a dog collar for a vicar in England. And he designed it himself, and he wore that around town, and sure enough when people saw it they thought he was a clergyman.

SEABROOK: And the reason he invented this high collar?

Mr. DODD: Because he didn't like wearing ties. And at the end of the book I'm sitting next to this wonderful stream in Trinidad at exactly the point where a century and more ago he had fished out his guppy. And fantastically the stream was full of guppies. And I realized that Robert Guppy wasn't a reverend, that guppy should never have been called a guppy, and as far as I could tell he'd never owned an aquarium.

But that was the whole point, because the book is about a journey to discover stories, and facts are elusive things like guppies. They flitter and flicker past you.

SEABROOK: Author Philip Dodd; he wrote "The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium." Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. DODD: It's my pleasure.

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