From Canada to Oceania, Guineas are in abundant supply
GUINEA. Equatorial Guinea. Guinea-Bissau. Papua New Guinea. The Gulf of Guinea. Guinea, Virginia. Guinea, Nova Scotia. The world has more Guineas than a pirate’s treasure chest. What explains the prevalence of the name?
Etymologists dispute the earliest origins of the word “Guinea”. Some trace it to a word in Tuareg, a Berber language, for black people: aginaw. Others think it originally referred to Djenné, a trading city in modern-day Mali. In the 15th century, Portuguese sailors used “Guiné” to describe an area near what is today Senegal, and by the 18th century, Europeans used “Guinea” to refer to much of the West African coastline. As colonisers carved up the continent, many European nations controlled their own Guinea. At independence, French Guinea became Guinea, Spanish Guinea became Equatorial Guinea, and Portuguese Guinea became Guinea-Bissau. The region was a major source of gold, hence the name “guinea” for the British gold coin.
In 1545, on the other side of the world, Yñigo Ortiz de Retez landed on an island north of Australia. Struck by the resemblance between its inhabitants and people from west Africa, the Spanish explorer named the island “New Guinea”. The word “papua” probably comes from the Malay papuwah, meaning “frizzled”, perhaps a reference to the islanders’ hair.
In addition to the various places, there are also animals: the guinea pig, most famously, and the guinea fowl. The guinea pig comes not from any of the Guineas in Africa, but from South America. Muddled Europeans may have confused Guinea with Guyana, today South America’s only English-speaking country. Guyana has nothing to do with Guinea: its name probably comes from a native word meaning “land of many waters”. Some scholars, however, propose an alternative etymology for the guinea pig: the rodents were brought to Britain on “Guinea-men”, trading ships that shuttled between Britain, South America and Guinea. The guinea fowl, for its part, did come from West Africa. But it, too, has a complicated history. The birds were originally introduced to Britain via the Ottoman empire and so were called “turkeys”. Later, early English colonists in America confused the native birds there with the African fowl, and called them “turkey” too. (In fact, they are a larger and entirely separate species.) All in all, a linguistic mess.