This may sound like something one does with a freshly caught fish, but look beyond that to its echoes of the old British empire and its South Asian trading. For me, the word always brings to mind the play Mr. Price, or Tropical Madness, by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, set in Rangoon (and written on the basis of a 1914 trip by Witkiewicz and Bronislaw Malinowski to that area of the world). Rapacious colonials straight out of a crazier version of Conrad spew (or, in the version done at the University of Calgary when I was a student there, sing) lines such as “We’ll drink to the success of our General Rubber and Coffee Trust. Long live coffee and gutta-percha, united in an invincible mass of power and glory. Long live tropical fantasy!”
It seems to me that that play was the first time I encountered the word. Of course, a boy growing up in Alberta in the 1970s and ’80s would not have had so much cause to hear of gutta-percha. This is indeed a tropical word, a Malay phrase rendered in English style: getah “gum, sap” plus perca, the name of the tree that makes the sap (in English it tends to be called the gutta-percha tree, it seems).
And it is a word of the height of British imperial glory, that excursion that also gave us punch, bungalow, dungarees, pajamas (all from Hindi), amok, bamboo, gingham, kapok, launch, orangutan, rattan (all from Malay), and many others, all washed down with gin and tonic (invented to help make the quinine go down easier) under the midday sun – which, of course, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in.
You can just hear the plummy colonial officer’s accent saying this word, the rhythm and final vowels of it already signalling foreignness, something that had come from some Singaporean gutter perchance, and beating its tattoo on the tongue with a tap at the back, one at the tip, a pop at the lips and a catch on the tip: back-mid-fore-mid, like a military march or whatnot. Not so unlike a vocal warmup I learned in acting class: butta gutta butta gutta butta gutta.
Gutta-percha’s virtues for such things as sealing roofs, gutters, and perches had long been known to the Malays when, in 1842, westerners first noticed that the sun-dried sap of this magnificent tree made a latex that could be made flexible again with the aid of hot water, and which would not become brittle like unvulcanized rubber. More gloriously still, it did not react with things like acid or enzymes, conduct electricity, or taste good to fish. It thus enabled the first undersea cables (in 1851) once a means of extruding it as an insulator had been invented.
Many other things were also made with it, thanks to its plasticity: pistol grips, rifle butts, furniture, jewelry, canes… In 1856, U.S. Congressman Preston Brooks used a gutta-percha cane to beat Senator Charles Sumner so badly he required three years to recover fully. (Brooks did this in the senate chamber; he had originally thought of challenging Sumner to a duel, but a fellow representative counselled him that Sumner, though a senator, was of lower social standing and so did not merit a duel.) Speaking of sports, gutta-percha golf balls (known as gutties) were quite popular for half a century.
So this fruit of imperial excursion made possible commercial and cultural excursion and assorted ballistic activities. Many of gutta-percha’s uses have since been supplanted by newer, better materials (vulcanized rubber, polyethylene, etc.). But it still has a few applications. Most notably, if you have a root canal, gutta-percha will be used to fill the resulting space.