Thursday, September 01, 2005

Eh Poh Nim Meets Big Willie

The Star, 4 August 2005

Continuing the story on Ms Eh Poh Nim, the talkative young woman with a cache of eponyms tucked up her sleeves.

Today Eh Poh Nim hits the gym dressed in a bright pink leotard. After a round of warm-up exercises, she starts slowly on the treadmill. Soon a big man parks himself on the bicycle next to her.

“Hello,” she says. “Haven’t seen you around here before.”

“Hi. I’m new here. This gym is so cold. It must be below 20 degrees Celsius,” he remarks.

“Cold is good, so we don’t get all hot and sweaty. Speaking of Celsius, do you know that Anders Celsius, a Swedish university professor, invented the Celsius thermometer? Naturally, the thermometer was named after him.”

“Really?” the man says politely. He starts to pedal and casts an appreciative glance at Eh Poh Nim’s trim figure. “You look nice in that pink leotard.”

“I’d thank Jules Leotard if he were still alive,” she says.

“Let me guess. He’s the inventor of the leotard?”

“Right! Jules was a French trapeze artist who wore this type of skin-tight garment during his act. He was very successful at the trapeze but unfortunately he didn’t live long to enjoy the fruits of his labour. He died at 28 of smallpox.”

Suddenly, she sniffs the air in an exaggerated manner and looks around for the source of the smoke. A man is puffing away in the middle of the gym.

“Excuse me, this is a non-smoking area. Would you mind putting out the cigarette, please?” she says.

“Sorry. I was just finishing it,” the smoker replies.

Eh Poh Nim rolls her eyes upwards. She asks her neighbour, “Do you smoke?”
“I used to but I quit two years ago.”

“Good on you. I really don’t like Jean Nicot. He introduced the tobacco plant into France and the plant was named after him as Nicotiana. Nicotine is derived from the word but I think it should be renamed Insidious Killer, what with lung cancer and all.”

“By the way, what’s your name? I’m Willie.”

“Eh Poh Nim. Is your name spelt W-I-L-L-I-E?”


“Your name is part of an eponym, you know? Big Willie. It was the name of the first tank used in action in 1916, invented by Sir William Tritton and Major Wilson. The tank was named after Sir William.”

Willie roars with laughter. Eh Poh Nim stares at him, then she too starts to laugh.

“Big Willie’s a tank? That’s a hoot. Here am I, Willie, big as a tank and Big Willie happens to be a tank. That’s funny. Oh my, I can’t stop laughing.”

“You’ve got a sense of humour,” Eh Poh Nim says, still grinning. “Here’s a story that’ll wipe off the smile. Have you heard of the phrase Sweet Fanny Adams? No? Well, Fanny Adams was the name of an eight-year old girl who lived in Hampshire. In 1867, she was murdered and her body was chopped up into small pieces.”

“That’s terrible. You mean psychos were already killing little girls and cutting them up way back in the 19th century? I thought this sort of crime was a modern sickness.”

“Aha. Sometime after the murder, tinned mutton was issued to the Royal Navy. A sailor found a button in one such tin and jokingly said it could be Fanny’s. From then on, tinned mutton was referred to as Fanny Adams which later gave rise to the expression Sweet Fanny Adams, meaning anything of little substance or nothing at all. It’s sometimes abbreviated as Sweet FA. Can you guess what the F stands for? It’s a four-letter word. The A stands for All. So sad isn’t it, the way Fanny Adams’s name has sunk to ignominy?”


“Ignominy. Disgrace. Humiliation.”

“Your English is very good. Are you an English teacher?”

Eh Poh Nim chuckles. “No. I like to read. I’m particularly fascinated by eponyms – words derived from the names of people. Did you notice that my name sounds like eponym?”

Willie’s face lights up with realisation. “I seeee ... Tell me more. Your stories sure beat the monotony of crunching on this bike.”

“Here’s another sad tale. Do you know what a Catherine wheel is?”

“It’s a rotating firework, right?”

“Yes. The Catherine wheel also refers to a sideways somersault. It was named after St Catherine of Alexandria who was executed for her Christian beliefs. She was martyred on a fiendish machine with spiked wheels. And the catherine-wheel window, a round window with radial divisions, is named after her too.”

“Poor woman. At least she’s immortalised in the dictionary.”

“Yep. That’s it, I’m done here. I’m going to do the weights now,” Eh Poh Nim says as she steps off the treadmill. “If we bump into each other later, I’ll regale you with more stories. That’s a promise.”

(Reference: A Dictionary of Eponyms by Cyril Leslie Beeching.)

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