Daily Archives: March 11, 2009


Not just a toponym but, in nearly all its uses, a proper noun. But a word nonetheless, so let us capitalize on it! The form of the word is among those oddities to the construction of which English is nowadays perhaps less inclined: it has the gui for [gI] to make sure that one does not say “jinny” (less of a risk in a time such as now when we put a [g] even on Gibran and Genghis, which were written with G to transliterate what we would now put as J), but, even better, it has that ea at the end, rather than the ee that one might have expected from a slightly later adaptation. So it’s four phonemes (/gIni/, or, in the Oxford version, /gInI/), six letters. Echoes and tastes? One might, on contemplation, find beginnings of guise and near – or the middle of beginning – but this is one of those words that echoes in, and gives flavour to, other words rather more than it gets any from them. The word seems to have come from a Berber word – in other words, like, say, Eskimo or Berber, it’s not taken from the people or region it describes – aginaw, meaning “black” or “black man.” The Portuguese, having adapted it to Guiné, used it to describe a large swath of West Africa; it has settled on that stretch of the African overhang from the Gabon to the Gambia. This area of Africa was among the first to trade with Europeans and among the last to be colonized by them, due to its well-organized, advanced, and not acquiescent kingdoms. But while Europeans were colonizing Guinea, its name was colonizing European language and spreading across the planet. An eponymous coin originally made with African gold for trade with Guinea came to be a byword for an amount of British currency equal to a pound and a shilling (because, apparently, the existing pre-decimalization system wasn’t cussèd enough), now £1.05. Certain birds from the area were named Guinea fowl. Rather less pleasantly, an indigenous parasite is known as Guinea worm. Meanwhile, there is the Guinea pig, which is not a pig and comes from South America (various theories exist as to the source of its name, but it was not named after the coin, as it was named before the coin was first struck). Four countries have Guinea in their names, and only three are in the region: Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, and Papua New Guinea (the last of which is named after the large island of which it occupies half, New Guinea – apparently enough alike the old Guinea to spare the Europeans who named it any exercise of the imagination or local research). And, as we may hope fewer and fewer people know, it is also an epithet for Italians and sometimes for Spaniards and other people of similar appearance, originally so applied because of their relatively darker skin. But the Guinea keeps on going – it has gotten quite a number of compounds: along with those already mentioned, it may be followed by aloe, amomum, cloth, drill, hairworm, pea, stuff, corn, cubebs, current, deer, goose, grass, green, hog, merchant, palm, peach, plum, pods, ship, sorrel, trader, weed… Let it not be said that Guinea never gets!