Book review: "The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium"

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ever wonder how the Jacuzzi got its name? Or the Frisbee? Or leotards and silhouettes? All these things were named after people, and this book tells you how.

Dodd, a British writer, takes us on his wide travels to run down the stories. We go to a chilly specimen room at the National History Museum in London to view the first fish to be called a guppy. We visit a Texas ranch to pursue the story of why nonconformists are called mavericks. And Roy Jacuzzi speeds us in his Mercedes to his Italianate villa in California, where he proceeds to talk about his highly inventive ancestors.

(The Mercedes brand, we learn later, was named after a 10-year-old girl who later died at age 39 without ever driving a car.)

Dodd delves into the naming of 16 things, including the sexual G spot, the fox-trot, the Oscar and the saxophone. These stories sprawl over about 250 pages of text, and if you do the math you realize he has a lot to say about each topic.

Sometimes, frankly, he says more than the reader really needs to know about family histories or his own travel adventures in researching this book. In one chapter, for example, we go through eight pages of artistic background before we encounter this sentence: "But how did the name of Etienne de Silhouette, finance minister of France, become associated with shades and profiles?" Yeah, how about that?

But there are wonderful gems here. Most fun are the human aspects of Dodd's stories. Jules Leotard was an acrobat who wanted a tight-fitting outfit to show off his trim and taut body, not just out of pride, but to drive women nuts. The eminent fish specialist who named the first guppy messed up; it wasn't a new species at all.

Oh, and the Rev. Guppy of the book's title? With a phone call to Robert Lechmere Guppy's grandson in Bali, Dodd confirms a hunch. Even though he'd found repeated references to Guppy's being a clergyman, that wasn't true. Some people were confused by the clericallike collar he wore, the grandson said.

And why the special collar? Because he hated tying ties.

-- The Associated Press

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