"Guinea" etymology

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Wed May 5 01:26:33 UTC 2010

I did a little more reading, and I think I've identified the inspiration
for Lingard's "Italian Guinea Pig Boy" song.

I don't find any evidence of guinea pigs being a usual 19th century food
among Italians or other Europeans.

The relevant stereotype seems to be that of a street beggar boy of
Italian origin. Along with the stereotypical street-organ man with
monkey, there was the stereotypical boy with guinea-pig (or mouse, or
other animal). As I understand it, the (poor hungry cute) animal could
serve as a pretext for soliciting a handout, or as a conversation
starter leading up to a request for small change. I think the guinea-pig
boy stereotype was more prevalent in Britain, particularly London,
although I suppose the same thing happened in New York and elsewhere.

I believe Lingard's image of an Italian with a "stock" of guinea-pigs
for sale was unrealistic: the typical guinea-pig boy probably owned only
one or a few or even none (there were those who rented animals etc. to
beggars by the day).

Lingard's popular song was a likely vector (not necessarily the only
one) for "Italian guinea-pig boy" = "poor immigrant Italian boy"
(Lingard apparently moved from UK to US in 1868).

 From Google Books (all works from England, I think):

[1856] <<[title] THE ITALIAN BOY. / Many poor boys come all the way from
Italy to England to try to get a living. Their parents there are very
poor indeed, and so they let them come, for they have heard that England
is a very rich country./ When they get here there are men in London who
send them ont to beg and bring what money they can get back to them; and
all the poor lads often get is only a place to sleep in, and something
to eat. They mostly send them ont with some cnrious animal in their
hands or in a cage -- a tortoise, or a Guinea pig, or a little monkey,
or a few white mice.>>

[1865] <<The importunities of my Israelitish friend are no sooner
resisted than a Savoyard boy with a guinea-pig under each arm, and a
white mouse emerging from the recesses of his trouser pocket, coolly
sits down beside me, uttering a plaintive whine about a 'pover' Italian'
s'gnor and a 'mezzo-baioccho,' but with a broad grin on his features,
indicative of the utmost pleasantry and good-humour.>> ["Mezzobaiocco"
was apparently a small coin, like a halfpenny.]

[1867] <<There is an inborn taste for natural history on the part of all
young people; and even the poor Italian boy who travels about with a
hurdy-gurdy and a guinea-pig, can always secure an admiring audience by
means of his little animal.>>

[1868] <<Every one has seen in the streets of London those ragged,
dark-complexioned boys, who exhibit white mice and guinea-pigs (see
picture ... [picture of boy with guinea pigs]>>

[1868] [novel] <<"You've set my missis against me, which is worse nor
being sent to prison, and turned my house upside down, and you've
treated me like a dog, and ordered me about like a jackal, and bullied
me worse nor an Italian boy does his Guinea pig; ....">>

[1874] <<[poem, "The Organ-Boy"] Great brown eyes, / Thick plumes of
hair. / Old corduroys / The worse for wear. / A buttoned jacket, / And
peeping out / An ape's grave poll. / Or a guinea-pig's snout. / A
sun-kissed face, / And a dimpled mouth, / With the white flashing teeth
/ And soft smile of the South.>>

[1879] <<[title] THE ITALIAN BOY AND HIS GUINEA PIGS. / In the crowded
streets of London and its suburbs may be often seen men and boys who are
natives of Italy. .... / Some of these Italian boys who are brought to
England go about the streets playing musical instruments. Others you may
see with little plaster casts for sale. Many go round with cages of
white mice, which they exhibit; and some, like the boy in our picture
[picture of boy with guinea-pigs], carry with them little animals called
guinea pigs, and these little creatures, like the Italian boys, are
natives of a warmer climate than our own, but they have become common
now in all parts of the world.>>

[1882] <<The boy was about twelve, with very black eyes and a long
Italian chin. When addressed, his countenance relaxed into a beseeching
smile, showing a set of the whitest teeth, thrusting forward his
half-open palm, and jerking his long forelock with the other hand, he
whimpered out: _"Carità, signori, si vi piaci. Signori, pauvre
geen-peeg."_ He had carried a guinea-pig on the top of his organ when in
England, but all their property had been confiscated for arrears of
rent, and they were sent home as paupers by the Italian consul.>>

-- Doug Wilson

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

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