Why Are Guinea Pigs Called Guinea Pigs Or Cavies?

guinea pig standing

Follow the mystery behind the name guinea pig. Pezibear/Pixabay

Paco, Zipper, Squeaky, Squirt. Whatever your guinea pigs’ names, if you named them then you know why you chose those names. But have you wondered why guinea pigs as a species are called guinea pig? They’re also often called cavies. The reason behind one of these names is simple, but the other is more complicated and still being debated. It’s time to explore the origins of the names guinea pig and cavy.

Guinea Pig Origins

The origin story for pet guinea pigs begins in South America. It’s believed that people domesticated guinea pigs about 3,000 years ago around areas of the Andes Mountains, specifically those that include present-day Peru, Bolivia, and other countries. Guinea pigs were raised mainly as livestock. In Peru, guinea pigs are now called cuy. This background sets the stage for naming.

That Guinea Pig Name

Their origination in South America might explain the guinea part of their name. Guinea pigs likely were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Around this time, the word guinea was sometimes used to describe things that were far across the sea, so that might be one reason why guinea was used in the name.

Or perhaps ports in either Guiana in South America or Guinea in Africa might have inspired the guinea portion of the name. Guinea pigs likely traveled to Europe on ships stopping at such ports.

One debunked theory from the past is that the word guinea came from the English gold coin of the same name that was said to be the cost of a guinea pig. This theory is untrue because guinea pigs were mentioned by name in writings dating from the late 1500s, yet the guinea coin was not created until 1663.

In scientific classification, guinea pigs are not part of the pig family. Guinea pigs are part of the family Caviidae, which also includes maras, mountain cavies, and other South American rodents. Pigs are part of the family Suidae, which are hoofed mammals and includes wild and domestic pigs and hogs. So if guinea pigs aren’t pigs, then why are they called pigs? Well, perhaps the sounds they make or the way they act reminded people of pigs. Some sources say that guinea pigs served as food can resemble suckling pigs.

This is why the history of the name guinea pig is complicated. No definitive answer to why they are called this exists yet.

Calling Guinea Pigs Cavy Or Cavies

Going from the complicated guinea pig name to the name cavy or cavies, the reason for these names are much easier to trace. The taxonomic name for guinea pigs is Cavia porcellus, indicating the genus Cavia and species porcellus. Cavy and its plural form, cavies, derives from the genus Cavia.

Other Guinea Pig Names

Guinea pig and cavy are the most common names for Cavia porcellus in English. Just for fun, here are the terms for this species in some other languages, courtesy of Google Translate.

Spanish: conejillo de indias or el cobayo
French: cochon d’Inde or le cobaye
German: meerschweinchen
Italian: porcellino d’India or la cavia
Japanese: morumotto