The news for pet rodents

From Nick Fitch on Facebook, this item from BBC News:

Guinea pig ‘explosion’ causes chaos for Cambridgeshire charity
15 April 2012, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

The item is entertaining on its own, but then as a bonus there comes a list of recent related stories:

Hamster stuck to cage with magnet 12 APRIL 2012, NORTHAMPTON

Guinea pig in world record leap 15 MARCH 2012, EDINBURGH, FIFE & EAST SCOTLAND

Clearly, BBC News is firmly on the pet rodent beat. Recently, just hamsters and guinea pigs, but we can hope for gerbils, chinchillas, rats, and mice to come.

Then, for linguistic interest, there’s the puzzling name guinea pig (and the use of the expression to refer to experimental subjects)

The beginning of the most recent story:

An increase in unwanted guinea pigs has prompted a Cambridgeshire animal charity to teach pet shop owners how to “sex” the animals correctly.

Wood Green animal shelter said it was at “full capacity” after a couple brought in 45 guinea pigs produced over eight months by their “same sex” pets.

“Of those, 17 are pregnant and could have up to six piglets each,” a spokesperson said. “You do the maths.”

This is pet-loving England, so no one seems to have hit on the option of cooking and eating the creatures, as is done is several parts of South America.

The Wikipedia entry on guinea pigs (also known as Guinea pigs and guinea-pigs) is extensive. Three highlights:

The guinea pig (Cavia porcellus), also called the cavy, is a species of rodent belonging to the family Caviidae and the genus Cavia. Despite their common name, these animals are not in the pig family, nor are they from Guinea. They originated in the Andes, and earlier studies based on biochemistry and hybridization suggested they are domesticated descendants of a closely related species of cavy such as Cavia aperea, C. fulgida, or C. tschudii and, therefore, do not exist naturally in the wild.

… Biological experimentation on guinea pigs has been carried out since the 17th century. The animals were frequently used as a model organism in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in the epithet “guinea pig” for a test subject, but have since been largely replaced by other rodents such as mice and rats. They are still used in research, primarily as models for human medical conditions such as juvenile diabetes, tuberculosis, scurvy, and pregnancy complications.

… The origin of “guinea” in “guinea pig” is harder to explain [than the “pig” part, which is clearly based on resemblance]. One theory is that the animals were brought to Europe by way of Guinea, leading people to think they had originated there. “Guinea” was also frequently used in English to refer generally to any far-off, unknown country, and so the name may simply be a colorful reference to the animal’s foreignness. Another theory suggests the “guinea” in the name is a corruption of “Guiana”, an area in South America, though the animals are not native to that region. A common misconception is that they were so named because they were sold for the price of a guinea coin; this theory is untenable, because the guinea was first struck in England in 1663, and William Harvey used the term “Ginny-pig” as early as 1653. Others believe “guinea” may be an alteration of the word coney (rabbit); guinea pigs were referred to as “pig coneys” in Edward Topsell’s 1607 treatise on quadrupeds.

A cute tricolor guinea pig, munching:

OED2’s etymological note on guinea-pig tentatively introduces another possibility for the history of the name:

Perhaps the animal was thought to resemble the young of the Guinea Hog (Potamochœrus); or the name Guinea may have been applied loosely, as in some other instances, as a designation for an unknown distant country. Confusion with Guiana seems unlikely.

Guinea hog is used in at least two ways: to refer to

the river-pig of Guinea, Potamochœrus pictus (by Marcgraf 1648 called Porcus guineensis) [OED2]

and to refer to a breed of domestic pig:

The name derives from the origins of the Guinea hog in the Guinea coast of West Africa. (link)

In any case, these are creatures in the pig family. The Wikipedia entry for Potamochoerus identifies this as a genus of pigs, with two species in it:

Bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus) [in Eastern and Southern Africa]

Red River Hog (Potamochoerus porcus) [in Africa, esp. the forests of Guinea and Congo]

The second of these species is presumably the OED‘s Guinea hog. The first is in the OED under bush-pig, sense (a):

a species of S. African swine, Potamochœrus porcus koiropotamus

(Sense (b) is a New Zealand use to refer to wild pigs in general.) The overlapping species names no doubt arise from the close relationship between the two species — close enough so that they can interbreed.

But back to the non-Guinea non-pig guinea pig. OED2’s first two cites for the compound referring to the cavy:

1664   H. Power Exper. Philos. i. 16   You may see them [Cheese Mites]..like so many Ginny-Pigs, munching and chewing the cud.

1677   E. Browne Acct. Trav. Germany 109   Some odde dishes at their Tables; as Guiny-pigs, divers sorts of Snails, and Tortoises.

(Note the reference to cavies as food.) OED2 doesn’t have the 1653 William Harvey cite (from Anatomical exercitations concerning the generation of living creatures to which are added particular discourses of births and of conceptions, &c. p. 527), but that will presumably be added in updates.

OED2’s first clear cite for the ‘experimental subject’ sense is:

1920   U. Sinclair Brass Check xviii. 102   Say to yourself that Upton Sinclair is a guinea-pig.

but it was pre-figured in this quote drawing an analogy:

1913   G. B. Shaw Quintessence of Ibsenism 135   The..folly which sees in the child nothing more than the vivisector sees in a guinea pig: something to experiment on with a view to rearranging the world.

And then, to top things off, there’s a verbing:

guinea-pig v. (intr.) to act as the subject of an experiment; also trans., to use (a person) thus.

1955   Times 20 June 9/4   He..might like to spend a ‘holiday’ at Salisbury, guinea pigging for the Common Cold Research Unit.

1961   Time (Atlantic ed.) 3 Mar. 19   [The astronauts] were guinea-pigged into hot chambers.

One Response to “The news for pet rodents”

  1. Cyanide and Happiness roundup | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] In the third panel, the verbing of the compound peer pressure. Some other verbings of compound nouns on this blog: spit-bath (here), catwalk (here), guinea pig (here). […]

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