[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.
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.”
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” — Armenski, Ermenistan, or whatever. This name comes, as usual, from Persian. The entire world calls Azerbaijan “Azerbaijan.” Lucky them.
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.)