The Names of Georgia (Reprise)

Two months ago I made a post called The Names of Georgia about the names Georgia has in different languages. It wasn’t very well-written. Recently I became a guest blogger for the official blog of Teach and Learn with Georgia, the program of the Georgian government by which I am employed as an English teacher. For my first post, I decided to revisit this topic and do a better job at it. Although there aren’t any pictures of maps in foreign languages, I’m happy with it.

For the benefit of readers of this blog, here’s the post in its entirety:

Every TLG volunteer has had the horrible experience of hearing someone say, upon being told about teaching English in Georiga, “What, you mean like Atlanta or something?” Subsequently we’ve probably all had the thought, “Seriously, why do Georgia the country and Georgia the American state have the same name?” Well, to answer that question, we need only answer the two separate questions “Why is Georgia (the American state) called Georgia?” and “Why is Georgia (the country) called Georgia?”

The first question is easy: Georgia was founded by English settlers during the reign of King George II of England, and so it was named after him. Might this answer the second question as well? Georgia (the country) had twelve kings named George (Giorgi). Of them, the most remarkable was George III, whose reign marked the beginning of medieval Georgia’s golden age. But the name “Georgia” dates from around the First Crusade, which took place about half a century before he became king, so the country couldn’t have been named after him.

The next most obvious suggestion is that Georgia was named after Saint George. They do seem to love him here. There are hundreds of churches dedicated to him, there are pictures of him in regular people’s houses, and most of the boys at my school are named Giorgi. It’s quite possible that the Georgians loved him just as much one thousand years ago, and this might have impressed the Crusaders enough for them to name the country after him. According to another (much less likely) theory, “Georgia” comes from the same place as the names “George” and “Giorgi,” namely the Greek word for farmer, georgos (literally, earth-worker). Supposedly this name was given to them (probably by the Romans) because they, unlike the nomadic herding peoples of the North Caucasus, were settled farmers.

However, another theory suggests itself when we look at the names other languages have for Georgia. “Georgia” and variations thereof (Géorgie, for instance) are used in most European languages – Latin, Germanic, and Celtic languages, plus Greek, Albanian, Finnish, and Maltese – as well as in most languages of peoples conquered by Western Europeans (Hindi, for example).  The rest of the world generally uses one of two names. In Slavic languages, Georgia is called something like Gruzia. Because of Russian influence, this name is also used by Hungarian and Estonian, Yiddish and Hebrew, and the Baltic languages, as well as most languages in East Asia (notably Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean) and some languages in Central Asia (like Kazakh and Turkmen). In most languages of the Islamic world (most Persian and Arabic languages, plus Turkish and Azeri) Georgia is called something like Gurjistan, formed by adding the usual -stan suffix to the root gurj.

So the most widely-used names for Georgia are based on three roots – george, gruz, gurj – which are fairly similar. This fact raises two problems for the Saint George theory of etymology: 1) Why don’t the Slavs use the name “Georgia” (or Giorgiya or whatever), especially considering that some of them also love Saint George? 2) Why would the Islamic languages use a name so similar to George when that name is not native to those languages?

Indeed, to explain the similarity among the names, a proponent of the Saint George theory (and similarly for the georgos theory) would have to say that the name George came first, and was subsequently transformed into gurj and gruz. But this makes no sense historically, since the Persians dealt with the Georgians long before the Western Europeans did. So the more plausible explanation  is that the name gurj came first, probably from a Persian word for “wolf” (the founder of Tbilisi was given the name Gorgasali, meaning “wolf’s head”), and that “Georgia” came about through some crude process of rationalization. That is, when Europeans heard Georgia referred to as “Gurjistan,” they thought “Hmm, Gurjistan…Gurj…George…They love Saint George…Georgia!”

So the next time you have to endure an inane conversation in which you explain that Georgia is a country near Russia, blame the Crusaders.

By the way, this is not the only idiotic geographical mix-up with which Georgia is involved: the ancient Greeks called Georgia “Iberia,” even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with Spain or Portugal. Where that name came from is not clear. It may be related to the Armenian name for Georgia, Vrastan, or it might be related to an old Mingrelian name for eastern Georgians.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with what the Georgians call their country. The name they use is Sakartvelo, which is derived from the endonym kart. This in turn is supposedly derived from Kartlos, the mythical founder of the kingdom on which modern Georgia is based (of course, it’s more likely that the reverse is true, and Kartlos was named after his tribe). The Georgians are not the only ones who use this name; names based on kart are used in the Northwest Caucasian languages. In particular, the Abkhaz name for Georgia is Kirtwila.

Finally, we should note that, although it would be hilarious, the Georgians do not call the American state Sakartvelo – they just call it Jorjia.

Update 10/23/13: The Mingrelian name for Georgia is Sakortuokort being the Mingrelian version of kart.


21 thoughts on “The Names of Georgia (Reprise)

  1. I have found your report on the source of the name ‘Georgia’ illuminating, as it goes a lot further than Wikipedia does. As I am researching Georgian expressions that refer to other countries, I wonder if you could help me. I understand that you don’t speak the language, but you surely know someone who speaks both English and Georgian. If you think you could help, please email me. Thank you. I am also a teacher of English as a foreign language, but in quite a different classroom from Georgia. I live in Brussels … that’s Brussels Belgium, not Brussels Wisconsin. Alan

      • I’m writing a book on the expressions in the language of one European country that refer to another European country, or city, or river, or inhabitant, etc. For example, in English we say ‘french fries’ which refers to another country, in this case France. Other examples in English are: hamburger, Russian roulette, take french leave, all roads lead to Rome, etc. Do you or your readers know expressions in other languages that refer to Georgia, or expressions in Georgian that refer to other European countries, or capitals, or mountains, etc? I will be very grateful for all help received.

        • I’ve been asking around, but people don’t seem to understand what I’m talking about. The only thing that I can think of is “Mexican potatoes,” a dish which usually appears on Georgian menus. I’ve never ordered it. (Mexico isn’t in Europe, obviously, but then again neither is Georgia really.)

    • You pose an interesting question Alan. kkk has a good point about “bulgaruli tsitsaka” (ბულგარული წიწაკა). It is Georgian for bell pepper and literally translates as “Bulgarian pepper”. Georgians use this reference to Bulgaria exclusively to talk about bell pepper, sometimes they do away with “tsitsaka” (pepper) altogether and just say “bulgaruli” (ბულგარული), which just means Bulgarian, but never just “tsitsaka”, as tsitsaka is more general and when unspecified it usually has a connotation of a slim hot pepper. To conclude, it is fairly common for Georgians to use just “bulgaruli” to refer to a particular vegetable.

      The only other example of Georgian phrase that refers to other countries that comes to my mind instantly is “italiuri ezo” (იტალიური ეზო) or Italian yard. This phrase is used to refer to a residential yard that is surrounded from three or fours sides with the building, sort of like a quad. Basically, the house is constructed so that the yard is fully inside and the entrance to the yard is either a gate (fenced or open) from the only side of the yard that does not have a building or if the yard is surrounded by the building from all sides then sometimes there’s a widen arc-shaped entrance carved below one of the four sides of the building. These buildings are residential and typically several families live inside and share a common yard; it is not uncommon for people to leave their home doors unlocked in such residential places. In the more shabby “Italian yards”, a couple or several families might share a common bathroom, though this practice is increasingly fading. Such residential arrangements can be found in the old parts of Tbilisi, especially in parts of Sololaki and Avlabari. Since just “ezo” simply means a yard, the phrasing “italiuri ezo” is widespread to refer to such residential arrangements in any context, including by the real estate industry.

      Then there’s the “kievuri katleti” (კიევური კატლეტი), which is Georgian for Kiev Kotlet (or, as is commonly known in English – Chicken Kiev), but I don’t know if this counts since the geographic (city in this case) reference in this dish is also present not only in its Ukrainian and Russian names, but even in its Western names wherever it is known, so there’s a high likelihood you’ve already collected this piece if you’re writing a book on such expressions.

      There are of course plenty of phrases that refer to regions of Georgia – like “svanuri marili” (სვანური მარილი, which is Georgian, for Svan salt – a type of salt mixed with herbs or spices which is rather popular in some families), but I won’t list them here since I don’t think you will need them.

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    Regarding “Iberia” – I am surprised you didn’t at least mention the Basque theory.

    I live in Georgia, and it was a Georgian tour group operator guy I once met who went on and on about the supposed connections between Georgia and the Basque region of Spain. I believe that someone recently (in the past year or two) published a book in Georgian that attempted to put forward the argument again.

    I paid attention to this, mostly because several of my friends in the United States are Basque Americans from the Reno area. One of my Basque friends in the US even has a friend who teaches Basque history at UNR. I’ve heard a whole lot of native Basque spoken in my life.

    Anyways, there has been a theory that has floated around connecting the Basque region and Georgia. It has popped up several times in the 20th century, and might be popular again here in Georgia. While I don’t believe that Basque people are big believers in this theory, nearly all of my Basque friends insisted that Basque settlements in Western Georgia were at least plausible. Basque people love to talk about their historical prowess on the high seas (take a look at the book, “Basque History of the World”).

    Having heard the Georgian language and the Basque language spoken, I certainly didn’t hear anything that would make me think they’re similar.

    But. But….

    I do have to admit there there is a certain small percentage of the people who I have met in Georgia who do seem to have a passing similarity between the Basque people I met in the United States.

    It’s totally anecdotal, but I returned to the United States and visited a Basque picnic – I was struck by similarities in the shapes of the ears and noses.

    So, who knows. Perhaps there’s something there.

    • There are two reasons for supposing the Georgians are related to the Basques.

      1) The name “Iberia”. Cursory Wikipedia research reveals that the Caucasian “Iberia” may have been derived either from an old Armenian designation for Georgians or an old Mingrelian (Colchian) designation for Georgians, while the European “Iberia” was probably derived from the Ebro river. The Greeks used both names, but it’s not clear whether the European Iberians they referred to were Basques or some other paleohispanic (i.e. pre-Roman) people. So that doesn’t narrow things down to the Basques in particular, even if the two “Iberias” should have a common origin. Further, I actually had a Georgian explain to me that it’s the Spanish who are related to the Georgians, rather than the Basques, and that definitely isn’t true. So there again, “Iberian” tends to mislead.

      2) Language. Generally the train of thought goes like “Hmm, here’s two languages that are supposedly isolates. But they both have this weird grammar with all these infixes and ergativity and all that. Maybe they’re related!” But this same reasoning also links Georgian and Basque to Sumerian. So that doesn’t settle much. Actually, the theory I favor to explain the correlation of isolation and infixes is that languages with complex infix systems are inconvenient and nobody wants to bother with them and so they can’t expand.

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  8. “The name they use is Sakartvelo, which is derived from the endonym kart. This in turn is supposedly derived from Kartlos, the mythical founder of the kingdom on which modern Georgia is based (of course, it’s more likely that the reverse is true, and Kartlos was named after his tribe).”

    This is interesting. I have a question: would it be plausible for a native Tblisi to refer to the area in Tblisi and its surrounding ‘Kartvelian Land’? Or is Sakartvelo more acceptable?

    If my character would like to refer to her native land (Sakartvelo) to a person of Arabic descent, would she be using ‘Gurjistan’ the way the Arab speakers would have referred to it?

    Thank you for your help.

  9. This is a very interesting topic, and I’d like to add a new spin to your Wolf Hypothesis! In Middle Persian, and possibly also in Old Persian, the word for wolf, gurg < *gurk, had another definition: "wine". How? The expression in full was gurg afshārag, "wolf wine" (more literally, "wolf juice"), whose meaning was "wine made from unripe grapes" or some kind of mead. Maybe it was an expression like "gooseberry" or "horse radish". Perhaps originally, "too sour for human consumption", or something like that. But at least in Syriac, the phrase was not pejorative. On the contrary, gurqā in Syriac was believed to have health benefits.

    More info about this Middle Persian expression may be found in page 139 of Iranian Loanwords in Syriac, by Claudia Ciancaglini. Though I don't have this book, if you could find it in a big library you might want to check it.
    You can read Syrian Anatomy (a medical textbook) on; gurqā (written gûrḳā) appears in vol. 2 (English translation), p. 338.

    As such, the original meaning of Gurg-istan might have been "Wolf Wine Land" or "Mead Land". Do they have some kind of famous wine/mead made from unripe grapes? If so that might be the true origin of the name! Just a pipe dream 🙂

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