Reginald Bragonier and David Fisher Are the Who's Who of 'What's What'

updated 03/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Monday morning. Dressing, you insert the metal tongue on your belt into a punch hole and slip the tip through the keeper. It's raining when you leave, so you undo the tie closure on your stick umbrella and push the runner up the shaft until it hits the stop wire and engages the top spring. Water pelts the gore, but the stretchers keep the ribs taut as you grip the J-shaped Prince of Wales handle and press ahead under the moisture that pours from the glowering nimbostratus.

Life is not quite the same after a browse through the 565 pages of What's What: A Visual Glossary of the Physical World. The publishing season's most unusual new reference work, What's What dazzles and sometimes bewilders with more than 1,500 illustrations of objects ranging from clothespins to jet cockpits to spiral galaxies, all with labels naming their constituent parts. Thus diagrammed, ordinary things become exotic (neckties, for instance, have 10 separate elements; the part you always dump spaghetti sauce on is the front apron). Exotic things like supertankers and royal regalia become comprehensible. As Reginald Bragonier Jr., 44, one of the book's two authors, explains: "Naming an object, or its parts, suddenly makes you look at it in a very different way, because to name something is to know it."

What's What was born of not knowing. About three and a half years ago David Fisher, now 35, a writer with 17 books to his credit, was at the typewriter in his Manhattan apartment, working on a book about a British magician during World War II. He was groping for the name of the castle walkway from which soldiers poured boiling oil on their enemies. (The word he wanted was rampart.) Unable to find a reference to it, Fisher called his friend Bragonier, whom he met when both worked at LIFE in 1970. Inspired by the question, Bragonier, a freelance editor-writer, proposed that they compile a book of such esoterica. It quickly attracted a publisher, Hammond—which invested $250,000 in the authors' advance and production and promotion expenses—and the project mushroomed to include "all objects in our everyday world."

The authors and a staff of researchers began tracking down sources. Some simple objects proved the most challenging. Bragonier recalls sending Ekco, a company that makes can openers, "back to their blueprints" to retrieve the term lance-form—the angled tab under the piercing end of a church key. Bragonier also recounts a phone call to Anna Urban, a Navy spokeswoman, who listed the external parts of a submarine as "the hull, the sail and the propeller." "Anna," said Bragonier, who served in Naval Intelligence from 1961 to 1966, "you mean to tell me there is no periscope?" "I'm sorry, sir," she said, "this is an open line, and that is classified information."

Airport authorities took a similarly circumspect view of their requests for information. "They were sure we were terrorists planning something," says Fisher. After they had tried half a dozen airports, an official in Houston finally opened up, providing, among other things, the name of the little trucks that pull planes around the terminal area: aircraft tugs. For the book's illustrations, the authors got help from some notable sources, including Calvin Klein, who contributed a drawing to demonstrate fashion jargon; Andy Warhol, who allowed his painting of a shoe to be used; Charles Addams, who let them use his drawing of a seedy mansion; and cartoonist Mort Walker, who sketched a tombstone for the book's final page.

Putting all of their six-figure advance into research, the authors still went $15,000 into debt. Bragonier, a career diplomat's son born and raised in Latin America, took over the finances from the outset and refused to give Fisher a checkbook. "He commanded my respect for that," Fisher laughs. "I wouldn't have given me a checkbook, either." The first edition of 50,000 sold out in eight weeks, despite a $30 price tag. Hammond has thrown its high-speed web presses into a second edition. Bragonier is married to a doctoral candidate and has three sons, two from a previous marriage; Fisher is single. They won't see any profits until their advance from Hammond is repaid. But they've already been vindicated by the critics, one of whom called What's What the perfect antidote for anomia, the inability to name things. Fisher was delighted. "We thought we were just writing a book," he grins. "We didn't know we were curing anything."

From Our Partners