Saturday, September 26, 2015

Why Are They Called Guinea Pigs? What Are Guinea Pigs Called In Other Languages?

Have you ever stopped to think about why we're called "Guinea Pigs" (in English)? Where did that term come from? Is it a reference to the country of Guinea, or the British coin? There is actually no definitive answer to why we're called guinea pigs, although the Grammarphobia blog cites four possibilities:
The Oxford English Dictionary mentions three theories about the origin of this inappropriate name:
(1) The animal was perhaps “thought to resemble the young of the Guinea Hog (Potamochoerus),” which is a river pig found in Guinea.
(2) Back when the phrase “guinea pig” was first recorded, the word “Guinea” was often used to denote some unspecified or unknown faraway land.
(3) The “guinea” here may represent a confusion with Guiana, a region of northeastern South America. This explanation “seems unlikely,” the OED says.
And here’s another suggestion, from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:
(4) The little feller was named for the people who brought it to England, “the ‘Guinea-men’ who sailed on ships plying between England, Guinea, and South America, to which the animal is native.” (The ships themselves, usually slavers, were also called “Guinea-men” or “Guineamen.”)
Interestingly, other languages have their own terms for us that are not just their word for "guinea" plus their word for "pig." Here are some examples:
  • In Icelandic, we're called "naggrís," which means "gnawing piggy." This makes complete sense, since our teeth are always growing so we always need to be chewing.
  • In Chinese, we're called 豚鼠 (túnshǔ), or "pig mouse."  This also makes sense since we look a little bit like these other animals. 
  • In German, we're called "Meerschweinchen," or "little sea pig." This one seems strange at first glance since generally don't like water (except to drink). However, according to one of our readers, "The name is derived from the fact that guinea pigs were first sent from overseas (South America), coming in shiploads to Europe. Originally they were meant for food but Europeans never really got into eating guinea pigs (luckily!) and started keeping them as pets instead. "
  • Several languages refer to us as "Indian pigs" or some variation of that:
    • In French, we're called "Cochon d'Inde," or "Indian pig."
    • In Greek, we're called  ινδικά χοιρίδια (indika xoiridia), or "Small Indian Pigs."
    • In Portuguese, we're called "porquinho da Índia," or "little pig of India."
    • In Italian, we're called "Porcellino D'India," or "Little Indian Pig." We're also known as "Cavia Peruviana," or "Peruvian Cavy."
    • Similarly, in Spanish, we're called "conejillo de Indias," or "Indian bunny rabbit." The "Indian" part from these languages refers to how we arrived in many countries from overseas.
That's me! I'm a gnawing, little pig-mouse-rabbit who came from overseas!
Is there another word for guinea pig in the language you speak? If so, let me us know in the comments below!


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  2. Our human assumed we were sold for a guinea at some point. She never actually researched it, though. We will use this oversight to shamelessly demand treats!

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