October 2, 2012 - Republic Day in Guinea

The first thing that Wikipedia tells us about the African nation of Guinea is this: “Not to be confused with Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, or Papua New Guinea.” Wikipedia doesn't bother to mention that we shouldn't get Guinea mixed up with Guyana or French Guiana, either—although I think that they could be confused pretty easily!

Not to mention that gold coins used in Britain in the past were called “guineas,” there is are turkey-like birds called guineafowl and there are mammals called Guinea pigs!

In the past, it was even worse: there was a Dutch Guinea and German Guinea in West Africa, and there was a Dutch Guiana and Portuguese Guiana in South America. Yikes!

Guinea pigs are NOT from Guinea!
Guinea hen and her chicks
Apparently the term “guinea” came to be known for an area of West Africa, an area that was split up among the European colonization powers (Dutch Guinea, German Guinea, Portuguese Guinea, French Guinea, and Spanish Guinea). Since this region was rich in gold, the British coins made out of gold were called guineas. The wild bird called guineafowl are from West Africa, and the traders who made the triangular trip from England to Guinea, to South America, and then back to England were often called Guinea-men. It was these traders who first introduced the cute, furry rodents from South America to Europeans, and somehow they got named Guinea pigs, even though they aren't from Guinea and aren't closely related to pigs!

A Spanish explorer who was one of the first Europeans to travel to the large island of Papua, north of Australia, thought that the dark-skinned people living their resembled the dark-skinned people of Guinea, in Africa. So he named the island New Guinea. These days the native name Papua introduces this misnomer, and we know this nation as Papua New Guinea.

Now, completely separately from all these “Guineas,” there was a South American Indian word meaning “land of many waters” that gave birth to the name Guyana. European powers carved up the land called Guyana among themselves, and the colonies were called British Guyana, Dutch Guyana, French Guiana, and Portuguese Guiana. Now independent, the first dropped the “British,” the second changed its name to Suriname, and the last joined up with the nation of Brazil. (French Guiana retains its name.)

Such is language, including proper names: ever changing, sometimes confusing, but full of interesting histories....

At any rate...

Today the African nation of Guinea celebrates its independence from France, won in 1958.

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