This European name for part of the west coast of Africa has given rise to a number of terms and senses, but its origin is unknown. The name first appears in Portugeuse as Guiné, but beyond that we have no clue where it comes from.1
It seems strange that a derogatory term for an Italian or Hispanic would come from the name for a region in Africa, but Guinea did not always carry this meaning. Dating back to the mid-18th century, the word was used to refer to blacks in the Americas. The following notice appeared in the South Carolina Gazette on 12 May 1748:
Run-away, a likely well-made Guiney Negro Man, named Toney.2
While this refers to a man from Guinea, by the early 19th century the term was being used to refer to blacks more generally. From James Fenimoore Cooper’s 1823 The Pioneers:
But damn the bit of manners has the fellow any more than if he was one of the Guineas, down in the kitchen there.
By the end of that century, the word was being used to refer to Italians. From Harper’s Weekly, 16 October 1890:
The lower “sporting” element in the poorer quarters of New York call them “Guineas” and “Dagoes.”
Within a few decades, the term was also being used for Hispanics. From Alfred H. Lewis’s 1911 Apaches of New York:
Does he think a two-cint Guinea from Sout’ Ameriky can bluff a full-blown Mick?3
Guinea is also the name for an English gold coin, minted for the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading With Africa. The coin bore the image of an elephant on its face. First minted in 1663 with the value of 20 shillings, the value was fixed at 21 shillings in 1717. The Royal Mint ceased issuing guineas in 1813, but the term continued in use with the meaning of 21 shillings. From John Evelyn’s Diary of 9 March 1664:
Now it was that the fine new-milled coin, both of white money and guineas, was established.4
2Hennig Cohen, “A Southern Colonial Word-List: Addenda to the DA,” American Speech 27, no. 4 (Dec 1952): 283.
3Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 986.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton