What's in a name?
Not from guinea and not a breed of pig. Why is the guinea pig called a guinea pig? We give you our thoughts…
Not from Guinea and not a pig! - say what?!
So why do we call them a guinea pig? Well, first we have to get two classic misconceptions out of the way:
'GUINEA' - Guinea pigs are not from Guinea (in West Africa)!
'PIG' - Guinea pigs are not pigs, they are rodents!
So why the heck do we call them guinea pigs?
Well, this is, in fact, a little bit of a mystery, but there are many theories to try and explain it...
the word 'guinea'
One theory is that, when guinea pigs were transported to Europe on board ships, Guinea (on the West coast of Africa) was a classic stopping point on route. This misleadmany into thinking they originated from there.
Another theory is that actually, through time, the word 'Guinea' has been corrupted from the word 'Guiana' (rather like a long, drawn out game of Chinese whispers!). So in fact, the reference is to a place called 'Guiana' in South America which is far more likely a location to find guinea pigs hanging out than West Africa!
A common misconception is that guinea pigs were sold for a guinea (an old English coin, roughly equivalent to the modern day one pound sterling (£1)). There's really no evidence for this and in fact, the guinea pig was already being referred to as a 'guinea' pig at least a hundred years before the coin existed!
The Word 'Pig'
The word 'pig' comes from the scientific name; Cavia porcellus, with 'porcellus' being Latin for "little pig". While guinea pigs are not actually related to pigs, they do have some similar traits; their "wheek! wheek!" sounds for example, are a bit like piglet squeals! They also have a similar body build to pigs, with large heads, a stubby neck and round body. And let's not forget their appetite! Just like pigs, guinea pigs love to eat and spend a lot of their time doing it! So you can see why people decided to call them pigs when they first saw them, particularly when they were often found in small pens just like their larger namesakes!
You may also hear a guinea pig called a 'CAVY'. This is the family group that guinea pigs belong to. It includes other native South American rodents such as the guinea pigs big cousin, the capybara, the largest rodent in the world. You may have seen one at your local zoo, they can grow up to 130cm in length and weigh as much as 65kg!
Around the World in 60 Wheeks!
While in English speaking countries we call them guinea pigs, around the world they are know by a whole host of other names! Here are just a few of them:
Meerschweinchen - Germany
Literally meaning 'Little Sea Pigs' (so cute!). This goes back to the days when guinea pigs were transported on ships as an easy and cheap source of fresh meat (sorry guys!).
Cochon d'Inde or Cobaye - France
'Cochon d'Inde' translates to 'Indian Pig' and is thought to be a reference to America rather than of India itself. The word 'Cobaye' is used more in reference to a guinea pig that is used in product testing (poor pig!).
Porcellino D'India - Italy
Rather like the French translation and meaning 'Little Indian Pig'.
Cavia or Guinees Biggetje - The Netherlands
The old word for guinea pig, 'Guinees Biggetje', translates to 'Guinean Piglet' (another cute one!)
Marsvin - Denmark
'Marsvin' in Danish means both ‘guinea pig’ and ‘harbour porpoise’ (?!). It can be roughly translated as 'Ocean Pig'.
Porquinho da Índia - Portugal
Meaning 'Little Pig of India', again a reference to America rather than India.
Conejillo de Indias or Cobaya - Spain
Conejillo de Indias translates as 'Little Rabbit of the Indies' (clearly an identity crisis going on here!).
Fniek ta’ L-Indi - Malta
Meaning 'Indian Rabbit' (complete confusion reigns!).
豚鼠 - China
Translating to 'Pig Mouse' (which makes a lot of sense!).