"Guinea" etymology

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Sun May 2 13:35:53 UTC 2010

I nearly included this ref. in brackets in HDAS I but decided it was

Doug's new evidence suggests I was wrong.  Like his, my impression is that
"guinea," as applied to Africans, was not in freq. use in the 1870s and
later. Had there been a real connection, I'd have expected the early
evidence to have come not from NYC but from N.O., which had a history of
both African slavery and Italian immigration.
Right now, I'm inclined to believe that the name was suggested by the song.


On Sun, May 2, 2010 at 2:20 AM, Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at nb.net> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET>
> Subject:      "Guinea" etymology
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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:
> http://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/indexofsongs.html
> Here are lyrics as published in 1876:
> http://tinyurl.com/29l5ybf
> ----------
> 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.
>          CHORUS.
>          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)
> History.
> 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
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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