The Names of Georgia

[For an updated and expanded version of this post, see The Names of Georgia (Reprise)]

Georgians do not call their country Georgia. They call it Sakartvelo (საქართველო), which is based on their name for their ethnic group, Kart.

So why do we call them Georgians? One theory is that the name was given to them because of their reverence for Saint George. This makes some sense — after all, their flag features the cross of Saint George, and many boys in my village are named George (Giorgi). Another theory is that the name comes straight from the Greek word for farmer, georgos (literally, earth-worker). This makes sense, since Georgians are now and always have been farmers, as opposed to the pastoral peoples of the Caucasus.

But these theories are both bullshit. To see why, consider who calls Georgia “Georgia”. We do in English, and they do in French and German, and generally this name is used in Western European languages.

Other languages call it something similar, but not quite the same. All the Slavic languages refer to Georgia as something like Gruzia. In addition, most East Asian countries base their name for Georgia on the Slavic name.


An ugly Russian map

Finally, most “Middle Eastern” languages (roughly, Arabic, Persian, and Turkic languages) call Georgia something like Gürcistan, which of course is of the common ______-istan form.

So there are three common names for Georgia, and they are all somewhat similar. Most likely they all come ultimately from an old Persian word for “wolf.”

japa mapa

Japanese calls Georgia “Guruzia,” but don’t be fooled — the name comes from Slavic, not Persian. Japanese just doesn’t allow G and R to go next to each other.

Always the odd man out, Armenian calls Georgia Vrastan (Վրաստան). This may have come from the same old Persian word, but it may not have. Very few people talk about this issue, so I am in no position to say.

Some people think that Georgian is the only language that uses the name Sakartvelo, but this is not quite true. The lagnuages of the Northwest Caucasian family also base their names for Georgia on the ethnic designation Kart. Notably, Abkhaz (the language of Abkhazia, with which Georgia is at semi-war) uses Kirtwila (Қырҭтәыла). The Kabardian language was originally spoken in the Circassian region of the Caucasus, but has been spoken mostly in Turkey since the Circassians were forcibly displaced by the Russians in the 19th century. Its word for Georgia is Khirtsei (Хъырцей).

So Georgia has as many as five different names or as few as two, depending on which etymologies you believe. Since I’m already on this boring topic, I’ll also tell you that Armenia has exactly three distinct names. The Armenian name for Armenia is Hayastan (Հայաստան), the Georgian name is Somkheti (სომხეთი), but every other language (literally, as far as I can tell) calls Armenia something like “Armenia” — ArmenskiErmenistan, or whatever. This name comes, as usual, from Persian. The entire world calls Azerbaijan “Azerbaijan.” Lucky them.


I have no idea what this gibberish is supposed to mean.

Just in case you were wondering, the name of the US state Georgia is something like Georgia in every language. In particular, the Georgian name for it is Jorjia (ჯორჯია). Of course it would funnier if they called it Sakartvelo, but the world isn’t always how we want it to be.

(Hopefully my next post will be less dry.)


5 thoughts on “The Names of Georgia

  1. Pingback: The Names of Georgia (Reprise) | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

  2. The older form of the Armenian name for Georgia is Virk (Վիրք), which is thought to be originated from the ancient name of the country – Iberia (through Iver->Ivir->Vir) suffixed by Armenian plural ending -k which denotes states or nations. Similiarily, the endonyme for Armenia was Hayk (Հայք), from “hay” (Armenian)+k. The ending -stan comes from a much later period.

    • Do you know of any sources for that etymology? The English Wikipedia page for “Caucasian Iberia” connects the two words, but in the opposite direction: it says that “Iberia” derives from “Virk”. I have no idea what to believe, since the reference it gives is in Armenian (which I don’t know). Perhaps you could look it up and tell me what it says?

      • First of all, excuse me for delayed answer. I had no time at all, but the tab was open for a year, until I could do a personal research. Now, regarding the matter.

        From the beginning, I seriously doubted that the Armenian version “Virk” is the source for “Iberia”, but said nothing until I consulted with Hrach Martirosyan, linguist, a leading specialist on the Armenian language from Leiden, Netherlands (see, for instance, As he explained, the toponym “Iberia” being derived from Armenian “Virk” is very difficult to prove linguistically. First of all, Arm. “v” in a word-initial position is though to be a result of a borrowing (in most cases – from Iranian). Secondly, there is no explanation for initial “i” in the Greek and Latin version.

        There are other cases, in which similar words with word-initial “i” have lost that vowel when borrowed by Armenians. See, e.g., “hreay” (jew), which originates from Classical Syriac ܝܗܘܕܝܐ (ʾīhūḏāyāʾ). Similarily, here also the initial vowel is lost, leading to hūḏāyāʾ, the intervocalic ḏ first became soft [ð] and then -> “r” (as in Bhagadata-> Bagarat). Thus “huraya” turned into “hureay”->”hreay”. By the way, the “hureay” stage was frozen in Georgian “huria” (jew).

        Probably, something similar happened to Iberia (Iber -> Ivir -> Vir+k).

        The link you have asked to check out, is an article in the Soviet Armenian Encyclopedia. In that article it says that two different theories, both deriving Iberia from Armenian Virk, were suggested by Melikishvili and Javakhshvili. Melikishvili argued that the Armenian version comes from the name of an allegedly Georgian tribe Svir (S+Vir), while Javakhishvili proposes another source: Sber. I have no time check those theories, you may do that for me. But personally, I don’t think they account for one thing. If this “tribe” they are referring to has anything to do with the province Sper, then there is to be a confusion, as the name of the province itself, which for a long period was part of the Greater Armenia, is reflected as Sper and did not undergo any transformation in Armenian.

        Best Regards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s