"Guinea" etymology

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun May 2 06:20:44 UTC 2010

In the <<"Wop in 1908?">> thread, Sam Clements wrote:
> ....
> Re: guinea=Italian and guesses
> 5 Dec 1889, _Bismark Tribune_ courtesy of Geneology Bank.
> A story about organ grinders in NYC and the new law(forbidding the playing
> of hand organs on the street) that caused most of them to leave the city.
> It starts out saying this hits the poorest Italians, and then shows a line
> drawing of one such organ grinder, under which is "A Guinea."  It goes on to
> say "...an organ or piano grinder is known in the vernacular as a "Guinea."
> They derive this title from the fact that it was formerly the custom of the
> newly landed Italian emigrants to buy a guinea pig as soon as they landed in
> this country to fatten for the table.  This custom prevailed to such an
> extent that it was a common sight to see an Italian coming up Broadway with
> a pig under his arm, and so the boys in the rougher locality came to call
> the "Guineas." "
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Jonathan Lighter" <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Sent: Thursday, April 29, 2010 18:57
> Subject: Re: "Wop" in 1908?
>> 1884 Joshua S. Lawrence, "The Italians of New York," _Ballou's Monthly
>> Magazine_  LIX (May) 453: The Italian language...has given rise to the
>> nickname applied to the Italian women when speaking of "Guineas," as the
>> sounds emitted by them are similar to those made by guinea-fowl. ....

A possibility: perhaps "Guinea" = "Italian" is unrelated to earlier
"Guinea" = "black African"; perhaps the ancestor of "Guinea" = "Italian"
is after all "guinea pig".

I see "Guinea" = "Italian" from 1882. I have not tried very hard to find
earlier examples, though.

It seems to me that _in the late 19th century_ "Guinea" had exactly the
denotation "Italian". I do not see it applied in this period to 'black'
or African persons or to 'dark-skinned' Mexicans, Portuguese, Arabs,
Gypsies, etc. ... only to 'Italians' (no doubt some exceptions can be
found). [This specificity would not necessarily invalidate the
conventional etymology, since Italian immigrants were numerous, also
conspicuous in the newspapers, etc.]

Did Italians raise and eat guinea pigs (more than other nationalities
did)? I don't know, but (regardless) a conventional association of
"Italian" with "guinea pig" (especially as food) would suffice for a
good candidate etymology. In particular, a conspicuously Italian guinea
pig rancher in a popular song of the right milieu would suffice.

Here is a song named "Italian Guinea Pig Boy". Amazon shows a so-named
item with a date of '1866', but unavailable. This list of song
compilations shows it from 1868:


Here are lyrics as published in 1876:




I'm a poor Italian Guinea pig boy,
Straight from Florence I come with my stock;
My parents say, "Joseph, what for you roam,"
And mine little sister cry, when I leavee my home.


          O zen take pity,
          On ze poor Italian Guinea pig boy,
          Vot leave him good home.

Ven I leavee I-ta-ly, my friends say, "good-bye,"
We no see you 'gain but my Guinea cry "queak,"
I fall in ze water and the people all stare,
But mine Guinea jump'd in and pull me out by ze hair.

          O zen take pity, &c

Well I recover'd and come to America,
O it so good, I no go back again,
Zo for my troubles I care not von fig,
Zo long as I please with my little Guinea pig.

          O zen take pity, &c


This is a comic song about an Italian moving to America with his guinea
pigs. This was sung by the very successful English comic singer William
Horace Lingard (author of the more durable "Captain Jinks" song), whose
US debut was apparently in April 1868 (per Wikipedia).

Here Lingard is interviewed in 1882 (from 19th Century U.S. Newspapers):


_St. Louis Globe-Democrat_, 5 Jan. 1882: p. 6:

<<My first impersonations in America were those of Grant, Greeley,
Hoffman, Lee, Washington, and the sketches were "Walking Down Broadway,"
"Captain Jinks," "On the Beach at Long Branch," and "The Italian Guinea
Pig Boy." They took, and everybody shortly talked of nothing in the
theatrical world but Lingard.>>


Here is an item from 1868:


_Brooklyn Eagle_, 29 June 1868: p. 3:

<<Yosef Rimencio, a little Italian (not) Guinea pig boy, was found,
sadly and lonely beating a triangle, yesterday afternoon in State
street. The pious denizens of that locality thought the youthful
compatriot of Cavoni [sic] Rienzi, & Co., was disecrating [sic] the
Sabbath, ....>>

[I take the "(not)" to apply to "Guinea pig" rather than to "Italian"
since the connection with Rienzi indicates that the boy is (assumed to
be) 'Italian'.]


Apparently to at least one reporter at the time, "Italian boy" strongly
suggested "Italian Guinea pig boy".

If a few others made a similar association, then the rest is (maybe)

It is also possible  that my supposed progression here is backward, that
the Italian "boy" was put together with the guinea pigs in the song
because Italians were already (by about 1866-1868) called "Guineas"
(because of dark complexions or whatever). My current speculation, then,
can be contradicted by evidence of "Guinea" = "Italian" predating this
song. Also it would be interesting to know whether there was (prior to
this song) a known or supposed taste for guinea pigs among Italians.

[Note that guinea pig meat is routinely consumed particularly in parts
of South America. Guinea pigs can be raised for food by city dwellers,
about like rabbits (I guess).]

-- Doug Wilson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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