From sand-baked Timbuktu, we head almost nine hundred miles southwest to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on Africa’s more temperate western coast.
We’re stopping here in the Guinean capital, but we could just have easily have told this next etymological tale two hundred miles up the coast, in Guinea-Bissau. Or more than fifteen hundred miles east, in Equatorial Guinea. Or, in fact, in a boat anywhere off the west coast of central Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea, or the Guinea Bight. That’s because it’s not Conakry that concerns us here, but rather the somewhat convoluted story of the word guinea itself.
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To British English speakers, the word guinea is probably most familiar as the name of a gold coin, first minted in 1663, that was originally equal in value to one pound sterling, or 20 shillings. As the price of gold fluctuated, so too did the coin’s value, rising to 25 shillings by 1668, and peaking at 30 shillings in the late seventeenth century.
Eventually fixed at a value of 21 shillings, the guinea remained in production right through to 1813, but even after it was taken out of circulation its name long remained in colloquial use in British English for the sum of 21 shillings, or £1.05. As a case in point, here is an anecdote from 1980 from comedy actor Kenneth Williams about his habitually acid-tongued friend, Dame Maggie Smith:
Kenneth Williams was Maggie’s closest friend in her early days. He recounted how, when they were going round Fortnum’s together, Maggie was aghast at the prices in the lingerie department. Seven guineas for a bra?’ she exploded. Cheaper to have your tits off!’
But why name it a guinea at all?
Although the coin eventually fell into domestic use, when the guinea was first introduced in the 1660s, the Royal Mint intended it to be merely ‘for the use of the Company of Royal Adventurers of England trading with Africa’. Embossed with an image of an elephant, these coins – 44% of which contained one troy pound gold – were to be employed exclusively in Britain’s trade with West Africa. It was to facilitate trade along this Guinean coastline that the original guinea coins were minted, and eventually earned their name.
Guinea might appear in the names of only a handful of African nations’ names today, but geographically it once referred to the entire region that lies along the Gulf of Guinea, the broad arm of the Atlantic Ocean that follows Africa’s western coast. How the region earned this name is debatable; perhaps a corruption of some native name (a Tuareg word, aginaw, meaning ‘dark-skinned people’ is one suggestion), the true origins of guinea remain a mystery.
One last question remains, then: what on earth is a guinea pig? Unlike turkeys and canaries, guinea pigs don’t come from Guinea, but rather from South America (and nor, for that matter, are they pigs). The origin of their name is as mysterious as that of Guinea itself, with various suggestions claiming it alludes either to the fact they were introduced to Europe aboard Guinea-men, a seventeenth-century name for the ships that sailed the Europe-West Africa trade route, or else that they were thought to resemble (more in colour than shape) the Guinean red river hog, a pig native to tropical West Africa.