Monday 16 January 2012


From the Dear Dogberry page comes the question of Guinea: Guinea the African country, New Guinea the Asian country, and guinea the unit of currency. They are all connected. Let us start, as the word did, with West Africa.

There is in the Tuareg languages of north western Africa a word aginaw, which means black people; and it's just possible that this is why the Portuguese decided to call a stretch of the north west African coast Guiné. Just possible, but not certain.

What is utterly certain is that Ynigo Ortez de Retez had a great surprise when he got to the Far East. He was a Portuguese explorer who knew the GuinĂ© coast and its black, frizzy-haired inhabitants. But he went further, all the way round Africa to Asia, where people had straight hair and lighter skins until... he got to an island east even of the Malays that was populated by black fellows with frizzy hair, just like the chaps back in Guinea (see picture). He therefore decided to call it New Guinea, and the name stuck. Papua is probably derived from the Malay word for frizzy hair.

Back in Africa the British regarded the Guinea coast with envious eyes, partially because it had some lovely gold mines. In 1663 we started to use this gold to make coins with little pictures of elephants on them and one eighty-ninth of a pound of 22-carat Guinea gold in each. One of these coins was therefore worth twenty silver shillings.

But the prices of gold and silver fluctuate, and they fluctuate in relation to each other. So when gold was expensive and silver was cheap, you could find that a golden guinea was worth thirty silver shillings and so on and so forth. Eventually, in 1717, the value was fixed at twenty one shillings to one guinea. In modern parlance this means that a guinea is worth £1.05. The last guinea was minted in 1813, however, for reasons best known to nobody, it is still the currency in which racehorses are traded.

Notice the little pachyderm at the bottom


  1. I'm puzzled that you place New Guinea in Asia. Granted, Indonesia took half of the country but that does not make it part of Asia.
    When I was a young man in Australia suits were always priced in guineas. As far as I can recall it was only suits priced in that manner.
    Regarding the sale of racehorses, I have a vague memory of being told that the pound went to the horse owner and the shilling to the auctioneer. What is curious and lamentable is that all these years after decimalisation we have yet to come up with anything other than the terrible "pee". Where are the modern "bob", "tanner", "brick", "sheet", and others?

    1. I suggest reviving the old ones, if no-one will come up with a better. Tanner's out since it's now a fractional number of pennies and we don't have fractional numbers of pennies any more. But a bob for 5p would work fine. What are a brick and a sheet?

  2. I'm not sure New Guinea is placed in Asia, the implication of the post is that the guy passed through Asia, arriving, eventually, at New Guinea ("...until...east even of the Malays...").

    And whilst perhaps less imaginative than pre-decimalisation words, there are certainly slang words other than "pee". There's quid, and the less commonly used, but still used, words such as pony (perhaps from rhyming slang?), score, ton, nugget, and then the more general words, like shrapnel, coppers and silvers (change), and wad and folds (notes). There's also the very common, widely used and unimaginative fiver, tenner and grand. There is certainly diversity in the British financial vernacular.

  3. Just to say that I bought The Etymologicon for Kindle just after Christmas. I was so impressed, I ordered the hard back, yesterday. Well done.

  4. I love the little elephant. I used to work in a shop. If the bill came to £105 I would ask for 100 guineas. Not once was I understood.

    I would think that people would be more likely to have slang for credit cards than coinage now. A taxi driver told me he calls the pound coin a "thatcher", as they are hard, brassy and not worth anything.

    This post does not state that New Guinea was part of Asia in the 16th century. However, was it or was it part of Terra Australis or the East Indies?

  5. My father told me that, not so very long ago, he could have bought a bespoke suit for a price in guineas (and shoes too!) So the term is not totally vanished...

  6. How do guinea pigs figure into all of this? They are from South America. Could they have been traded for a guinea at some point? Also, I'm not that ancient (50 years old) but I remember that our first dog cost us 11 guineas, so I think guineas were used as currency in England long beyond the point when there was actually a coin equivalent.

  7. Here's an interesting associated fact. The gold-mines of what is now Guinea are of very ancient provenance. The Carthaginians sent a fleet out beyond the Straits of Gibraltar and down the coast of West Africa, in the 5th century BC, under the great admiral Hanno.

    The Periplus of the voyage is very detailed, but those details are deliberately obscured so that nobody else (i.e the Greeks) could follow them. They traded for gold with the natives, and appear to have sailed as far as Mt. Cameroun (which was then in eruption) before retracing their path to Carthage.

  8. The expression of prices in Guineas was used by several groups of ‘traders’. Tailors have already been mentioned, but there were also Lawyers, both Solicitors & Barristers. It was said that the ‘shillings’ elements were retained by their clerks in lieu of wages.
    I was interested in the reference to a cabby calling a Pound coin a Thatcher. One of my grandfathers ran a taxi business and used a variety of ‘slang’ names for monetary amounts. The only one I remember was an ‘oxford’, which I believe was five shillings.

  9. Following Pat's comment on "the Thatcher", the true and far funnier definition was that it was hard (some say thick, but Thatcher certainly wasn't that), brassy and thought it was a sovereign.

  10. The Antipodean, fond of metric despite its lack of romance,17 January 2012 at 23:20

    Lindy W, guinea pigs are in The Book. Let me know if you'd like a page reference.

    There's an old post on currency terms here, but it only discusses the etymology for quid, sadly.

  11. I haven't got the book, but I hope it doesn't omit the etymological cock up that turned guinea fowl into turkeys and vice versa.