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Meeting Some People Whose Names Went on to Become Household Items

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: epic eponyms.

RS: An eponym, as dictionaries tell us, is a real or mythical person for whom something is or is believed to be named. For example, George Washington is the eponym of Washington, D.C.

AA: But you won't find obvious examples like that in a new book called "The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium: From Joseph P. Frisbie to Roy Jacuzzi, How Everyday Items Were Named for Extraordinary People." From his brother-in-law's recording studio in London, author Philip Dodd explained to us how he got the idea.

PHILIP DODD: " I was watching a TV program a couple of summers ago here in the U.K. It's called 'University Challenge,' and there was a question along the lines of 'What tropical fish was named after a West Indian clergyman?' And nobody on the show knew -- and nor did I, come to that. And the answer came: it was the guppy.

"I looked to my left and we had a tropical aquarium at home full of guppies. and my then three-year-old daughter and I loved the guppies, these kind of cute little frilly tailed fish. I just had one of those little eureka moments where you think, 'I never, ever knew that.' And I never knew they were named after a person. And it just got me thinking and I started checking out things, and discovering that the Frisbee was named after somebody, and the Jacuzzi, and I started checking out their stories."

RS: "What kind of people did you find, or what new items in our lexicon did you find that were related to real people?"

PHILIP DODD: "I mean, it was things like the saxophone is named after Adolphe Sax. He was a Belgian musical instrument maker in the nineteenth century. He invented a lot of instruments and he named pretty well all of them something-sax, and it just happens that the one that stuck around is the saxophone.

"And then there'd be weird things like I just heard in passing the fact that the foxtrot dance was named after somebody called Harry Fox."

AA: "You thought maybe it was named after the animal or something?"

PHILIP DODD: "Could be -- you know, the funny thing, isn't it, when you use language every day, you don't stop and analyze every single word that comes out of your lips. And you gaily go around using these words like 'sandwich' and you don't sort of think, oh yeah, there was somebody called the Earl of Sandwich and that's where the name comes from."

RS: "So, you really in this book are telling us stories, stories behind the words."

PHILIP DODD: "Yes, stories about people, really, and how their name had been immortalized in the English language. Sometimes they didn't know about it. Joseph P. Frisbie, who the Frisbee is named after, he never knew that his name was going to be applied to this fantastic plastic flying disc."

AA: "Why, then, did it end up being called a Frisbee?"

PHILIP DODD: "He was a pie manufacturer in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a very successful pie manufacturer in the beginning of the last century. He made fruit pies, primarily, that were famous in the area, and they came in these metal pie tins. And the delivery guys and people who just had one of his apple pies found that when the pie tins were empty and you kind of flicked them, they had an inbuilt aerodynamic quality that meant they just glided. And locally this was known as Frisbie-ing.

"Joseph P. Frisbie died in nineteen-forty. Cut to nineteen fifty-seven, when the Wham-O toy company of California, working with a couple of inventors, were just about to market this new plastic flying disc -- which at the time was called the Pluto Platter. And they did a market research trip up in New England and they heard this word being used. People would say, 'Oh, I remember, that's like the Frisbie.' And they thought that's a great name for the product. In fact, Joseph P. Frisbie's name ended i-e and they changed it to double-e, which kind of suits the product better. It reminds me of the word 'whee,' and that sense of flying."

AA: "And tell us, where is Roy Jacuzzi?"

PHILIP DODD: "Roy Jacuzzi is in California, but strangely he was in England last week; I had breakfast with him. His son now lives just outside London. And Roy is from a great Italian family who came over from just north of Venice, through Ellis Island, in the nineteen hundreds. And they were like a bunch of brothers and sisters -- seven brothers and six sisters or the other way around -- and they were inventive guys who were always looking for practical solutions."

RS: And one of those solutions, it turned out, was the whirlpool bath. More about that story, and other eponyms, next week with Philip Dodd, author of "The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium."

AA: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.