Guinea pigs are neither pigs nor from Guinea. Then why are they called that in English?
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The guinea pig’s name has a complex and enigmatic history. Guinea pigs are originally from South America, where they were locally known by their Old Tupi name: çabuia or sabuia. European travelers started taking them to Europe in the early sixteenth century, and in the process created new names for the species. Çabuia became Latin cavia, which is still the guinea pig’s name in languages like Dutch, Frisian, and Turkish. In German and the Scandinavian languages, as in Finnish, Hungarian, and Russian, they are “sea” or “ocean” pigs; in Icelandic they are simply “gnawing” pigs; finally, in Romance languages like French, Spanish, and Portuguese, they are “Indian piglets” or “Indian bunnies,” due to their origin in the so-called West Indies.
In none of these languages is the guinea pig said to be from Guinea. English was one of only two major European languages to call them that. (For the other language, stay tuned!) Where does the strange English name come from?
No one knows for sure. The guinea pig’s current name only starts appearing in English printed sources in the 1650s; this is almost a hundred years after the first guinea pigs reached England’s shores. We know that they were kept as pets during Shakespeare’s lifetime, thanks to the discovery, in 2013, of a sixteenth-century painting featuring a pet guinea pig. But we do not know what they were called in real life. The name that emerges in the mid-seventeenth century is guiney-pig, alternatively spelled ginny-pig.
There are many hypotheses that try to account for this name, not all of which are plausible. It has been suggested, for example, that guinea pigs were sold for the equivalent of a guinea, an English gold coin worth a little more than a pound. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to back this up. It has also been claimed that guinea pigs were brought to England on guinea-men, an old name for a slave ship. But the evidence shows that the terms ginny pig or guiney pig are older than guinea-man.
There are more interesting and plausible hypotheses, however, and here I will describe two of them, by retracing the term’s initial appearances in the English language. My discussion is partly indebted to the work of two professional historical linguists: Marek Stachowski and John Considine; and some of it comes from my own simultaneous fascination for guinea pigs (like my pets Johnson and Boswell) and for intellectual history (one of my fields of research).
To the hypotheses then! Both start with the image below:
This is the earliest known illustration of a guinea pig in an European source. It features in the beautifully illustrated Icones Animalium, by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516–1565). Gessner cites the animal’s name in Latin, German, French, and Italian, and in every case that name means “Indian rabbit.” This image reappeared a year later in Gessner’s ambitious Historia animalium, a Renaissance encyclopedia of animals, together with a description of the guinea pig. In the process, its name had changed. Gessner was unsure whether to describe the animal as a piglet (porcellus) or a rabbit (cuniculus), since it had the size and shape of a rabbit but sounded like a piglet. He accordingly went with both: De cuniculo vel porcello indico (“On the Indian rabbit, or piglet”):
Gessner’s ambivalent description of the animal as maybe a pig and maybe a rabbit would survive in English-language sources and eventually help to determine its name in English. As we know, the pig would eventually win the race among English speakers.
This brings us to the first of the two hypotheses about the origins of the guinea pig’s English name.
Hypothesis 1: A guinea pig may be a “bunny pig”
In 1886, in a book lovingly devoted to the guinea pig, the English author Charles Cumberland showed that guinea pigs had not always been called by that name in English. He identified what is still accepted as the very first reference to a guinea pig in an English-language source: an illustrated entry in a 1607 encyclopedia entitled The History of Four-footed Beasts. This book, published by the cleric Edward Topsell, was an adaptation of Gessner’s Historia animalium.
Topsell translates Gessner’s entry on the guinea pig, and in the process reproduces Gessner’s original ambivalence over whether the animal is a pig or a rabbit. In Topsell’s translation, Gessner’s title for the entry becomes “Of the Indian little Pig-Cony.” A cony is an old name for a rabbit, and “little pig-cony” was Topsell’s way of translating Gessner’s cuniculo vel porcello (“rabbit or piglet”):
We don’t know whether “pig-cony” was ever commonly used as a designation for the guinea pig. In fact, we have no other attested occurrences of the name between the publication of Topsell’s book in 1607 and the 1650s. Then, in 1658 Topsell’s book was republished, putting the term “pig-cony” again into circulation. Six years later we find what the OED (the Oxford English Dictionary) still regards as the earliest occurrence of guinea pig in English, in Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy (1664). The term subsequently reappeared in a number of different sources, including dictionaries and scientific works.
Most interestingly, we find the ginny-pig being assigned a place in Noah’s Ark in John Wilkins’s An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668), a book that used to fascinate Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges:
Is there a causal relation between Topsell’s pig-cony and Power’s and Wilkins’s ginny pig — with cony becoming guinea? It is a tantalizing possibility. In principle, as languages undergo sound change, initial /k/ may change to /g/ through a process called lenition. In addition, eighteenth-century dictionaries routinely associate the guinea pig with Gessner’s original name — the porcellus indicus — while dropping the cuniculus (or rabbit) part of the name. What began as a pig or rabbit becomes unequivocally a pig. The conversion of cony into guinea would help to explain the rabbit’s disappearance, since the word would have mutated into the “guinea” that qualifies the pig.
The evidence for this hypothesis is inconclusive (and, as will be seen, problematic). But if this is true, then a guinea pig is just a bunny pig — which, one must say, would be very appropriate!
Hypothesis 2: A guinea pig may be a “faraway” pig
There is a problem with the first hypothesis, however. The OED is outdated when it comes to the documented occurrences of “guinea pig.” As it happens, the terms guiney-pig and ginny-pig already existed prior to the republication of Topsell’s book in 1658. The image below predates by more than a decade what the OED regards as the earliest known occurrence of “guinea pig”:
But if “guinea pig” comes neither from “pig-cony” nor from anything having to do with Guinea, then where does it come from? The answer may have to do with the meaning of “Guinea.” Historical linguists have demonstrated that the compound “guinea + noun” was by no means unusual in English. A quick search through the OED reveals that turkeys were called ginny hens in 1578, and that the Muscovy duck was called a ginney duck in 1602. John Considine shows, with examples from the early seventeenth century, that the term ginny was often misused for Indian. Writing in 1640, the English botanist John Parkinson complained that the English used “guinea” to refer to pepper coming from Brazil:
Indian corn was alternately called “ginney wheat” or “indian, or turkey wheat.” As these examples show, these three terms — “indian,” “turkey,” and “guinea” — were used more or less interchangeably to refer to some unspecified faraway country.
Testimonies from the seventeenth century show that educated commentators felt frustrated by the popular conflation between these very different places. For Considine, this is the case with the guinea pig: “Educated users of English in the 17th century knew that not everything named for Guinea comes from Guinea, though they also knew that trying to persuade the less educated English-speaking public that Guinea and the Indies are not the same place was a hopeless cause.”
In short, under this second hypothesis the “guinea” pig was not a pig from Guinea, but simply a pig from an unspecified faraway land.
The porcellus guineensis
But things do not stop here. As it happens, educated observers didn’t always know that guinea pigs were not from Guinea. In fact, many naturalists believed that they did. The most celebrated work of natural history in all of the eighteenth century, the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, notes that the cochon d’inde (the French name for the guinea pig) comes from both Brazil and Guinea:
Buffon was not drawing on a popular and mistaken English designation for the Cavia porcellus. Instead, he explicitly claims that guinea pigs arrived in Europe from two different overseas regions. Wouldn’t this suggest that the guinea pig’s name may have followed from a misconception regarding the animal’s origins?
I mentioned, at the beginning of this post, that English was not the only major European language to associate these South American rodents with Guinea. For a while Latin did it too. And Latin sources explain why Buffon believed that guinea pigs came from Guinea.
The modern Latin name for the guinea pig is Cavia porcellus. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, it was more commonly known as porcellus indicus, the name popularized by Gessner. But in the mid-seventeenth century an alternative Latin name emerged: porcellus guineensis. We find this name, for example, in a 1678 Latin dictionary by Adam Littleton:
This definition was picked up in several editions of Elisha Colen's much reprinted Latin dictionary. In 1685, George Meriton followed suit and defined the ginny pig as a porcellus guiniensis:
What are the origins of porcellus guineensis? Maybe the term emerged as a Latin translation of “guinea pig.” But it is also possible that it emerged from the conflation between porcellus indicus and the Latin name of a very different animal: the red-river hog. The modern scientific name of this animal is Potamochoerus porcus, but seventeenth-century sources called it porcus guineensis. The name was proposed by two influential European naturalists, Willem Piso and Georg Marcgraf, in the first encyclopedia of Brazilian fauna:
Piso and Marcgraf describe the guinea pig shortly after the porcus guineensis, which may have led to the eventual emergence of porcellus guineensis in scientific writing. In 1693, the prominent English naturalist John Ray drew on Piso and Marcgraf to describe the guinea pig, and in doing so he claimed that the animal comes from both Brazil and Guinea. He accordingly called it cuniculus americanus & guineensis (“the American and Guinean rabbit”).
What does this have to do with Buffon? As it happens, Ray’s book was Buffon’s source for claiming that the animal comes both from Brazil and from Guinea. The term porcellus guineensis, whatever its origins, led to the view, espoused by naturalists like Buffon, that guinea pigs came from Guinea.
The enigma persists
These are inconclusive possibilities, and etymologists and historical linguists have not reached any consensus about them. Part of the problem is that the historical record is very fragmentary. There probably are references to guinea pigs in printed sources unknown to us, or in handwritten sources locked away in archives. More importantly, however, is the fact that these sources are late in the game. As I noted above, guinea pigs were present in England almost a hundred years before the emergence of the term “guinea pig.” People certainly had names for the animal, which are now lost to history. And they probably had assumptions about its nature (is it a pig?) and its origins (is it from Guinea?) that we can only surmise.
JOHN CONSIDINE, “The origins of English guinea pig and German Meerschweinchen again.” Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis; Kraków Vol. 136, Iss. 1, (2019): 1-7.
MAREK Stachowski, “Is the English guinea pig a pig from Guinea, and the German Meerschweinchen a piggy from the sea?, or two old problems revisited.” Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis 131 (2014): 221–228.