Notes on Terminology

I’m working on some posts dealing the wars Georgia has fought in post-Soviet times, and the terminology involved in these conflicts is hotly contested. So rather than repeatedly adding disclaimers and footnotes, I’ll lay out my terminology guidelines here. (Much of this post is based on George Hewitt‘s new book Discordant Neighbours.)

  • Abkhazia
Georgian: Apkhazeti (აფხაზეთი)
Abkhaz: Apsni (Аҧсны)
Mingrelian: Saapkhazo (სააფხაზო)
Russian: Abkhaziya (Абхазия).

Also: Afxazeti, the Georgian keyboard transcription of აფხაზეთი.

afxazeti graffiti

Graffiti in Tbilisi

  • Apswa

The Abkhazian self-designation (Abkhaz: Аҧсуа). I include it here because, as Hewitt explains, it has gained some currency among Georgian nationalists as a way to refer to Abkhazians. This might sound like a sign of respect, but in fact it is used to paint Abkhazians as foreign invaders and occupiers. There is a theory (popular in some circles) that the original inhabitants of Abkhazia were Kartvelians who were displaced a few centuries ago by peoples from the North Caucasus. Adherents of this theory will refer to Abkhazians as “Apswa” (Georgian: აფსუა) and reserve “Abkhazians” (Georgian: Apkhazebi (აფხაზები)) to refer to the hypothetical original inhabitants of Abkhazia.

georgian abkhaz

A misguided plea

  • -eti

A Georgian place suffix. I include this because Donald Rayfield says in his Georgian history book Edge of Empires that he uses “traditional English names” for regions rather than Georgian ones, e.g. “Kakhetia” and “Imeretia” instead of “Kakheti” and “Imereti”. But those Anglicized names, besides not being well-attested, are grammatically silly, appending place suffixes to words which already have place suffixes (Kakh-eti-a). So I’m sticking with Georgian names for such places.

Incidentally, “Ossetia” is the result of the same comical resuffixing. Os– is the Georgian stem for “Ossetian”, with Oseti meaning “land of the Oses”. Oseti was taken up into Russian (and hence into European languages) as Ossetia, “land of the Ossetes”, rather than the more sensible Ossia.

  • Georgia

Usually refers to the modern nation-state Georgia, including the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I won’t generally include those regions in my use of “Georgia”, although I may refer to, say, “Georgian Abkhazia“.

For the names of Georgia in various languages, see The Names of Georgia

  • Georgian

Properly refers to native speakers of Georgian (or perhaps descendants thereof), but almost always includes Mingrelians and Svans and even Laz. In other words, it is typically used as if it were synonymous with Kartvelian (see below). I will generally try to abide by the distinction, but I might sometimes refer to someone like Beria as a “Mingrelian Georgian” (see Are Mingrelians Georgians?).

  • -i

The Georgian nominative case ending (that is, it attaches to the end of words in the subject position of a sentence). The basic form of Georgian words almost ends in -i. In particular, -i is usually added to the names of cities (unless they already end in a vowel). Abkhazians and Ossetians don’t use these -i’s, giving, for instance, Gal instead of Gali. In Russian, both forms are used (even for cities which are indisputably Georgian, e.g. Batum vs Batumi). A writer’s use of -i for city names is sometimes taken as a sign of sympathy towards the Georgian side and its absence is correspondingly taken as a sign of sympathy for the Abkhazian and Ossetian sides. That said, I will generally use the -i, since Georgian is the relevant language with which I am most familiar, but I might drop it if that sounds better to me. I don’t intend anything by either usage. Sometimes I’ll use the neutral parentheses-i (e.g. Gal(i) ), though this is visually displeasing.

  • Javakheti
Armenian: Javakhk (Ջավախք)

A region in southwest Georgia populated mostly by Armenians. Related to the wars in that there has been friction (albeit nonviolent) between Georgian nationalists and the local Armenian population. Hewitt reports the following terminological incident (p. 344):

When Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vshadze visited Yerevan in October 2010 and was asked about the problem of “Javakhk”…he rather undiplomatically replied that no such place exists on the map and that there was no problem with Georgia’s Armenian community.

Actually, Hewitt uses the Russianized spelling “Dzhavakheti” (and similar for other J- names, which are quite common on both sides of the Caucasus). For details, see the last few paragraphs of Adjarans.

  • Kartvelian

Refers to speakers of Kartvelian languages (Georgians (see above), Mingrelians, Svans, and Laz). Not in common usage (because most people conflate Kartvelians with Georgians), but used by Hewitt, in whose book one often finds the word “Georgian” accompanied by the footnote “recte Kartvelian”.

  • Mingrelia
Georgian: Samegrelo (სამეგრელო)
Mingrelian: Samargalo (სამარგალო)

The homeland, in Western Georgia, of Mingrelians. Among English teachers in Georgia the existence of the word “Mingrelia” is not well-known; they usually just say “Samegrelo”. It has even been argued to me (by a Canadian friend living in Mingrelia) that Anglophones ought to avoid “Mingrelia” on the grounds that Mingrelians themselves don’t use the word. But “Samegrelo” and “Samargalo” are both grammatically opaque in English. An Anglophone who didn’t know any better might suppose that the people who lived there were called “Samegrelians”, not knowing that the sa- is a grammatical prefix. So I’m sticking with “Mingrelia”. (Similar considerations apply to the argument that we should say “Sakartvelo” instead of “Georgia” — if we’re going to use a name like the Georgian endonym, we should say something like “Kartvelia“, because “Sakartvelo” is nonsensical in English.)

In Abkhaz: Agirni (Агырны) or Girtwila (Гыртәыла), both being related to the Kartvelian names (compare –gir-, –gr-, –gar-).

  • Samachablo

“The land of the Machabelis” by the standard Georgian grammatical construction Sa-Machab(e)l-o (see Mingrelia). The princely Machabeli family used to control part of what is now South Ossetia. Since the rise of the Ossetian independence movement in the late 1980s, Georgian nationalists have used “Samachablo” as a euphemism for South Ossetia, though naming regions after ruling families is not a well-attested historical practice. Hewitt points out (p. 97) that the Machabelis actually sold their rights to the land to the Russian Empire after annexation, so that there is not even a thin legal pretext for using the name.

  • Shida Kartli

The Georgian administrative unit to which South Ossetia theoretically belongs. Sometimes used as a euphemism for South Ossetia, but in fact Shida (Inner) Kartli is strictly larger than South Ossetia, including indisputably Georgian areas like Stalin’s hometown of Gori.

shida kartli south ossetia

Shida Kartli minus South Ossetia

  • Sukhum(i)
 Abkhaz: Akwa (Аҟəа)
Georgian: Sokhumi (ოხუმი)
Russian: Sukhum (Сухум; see -i)
Mingrelian: Akujikha (აყუჯიხა)  (not well-attested on Google)

The capital of Abkhazia. Known in ancient times as Dioscurias (Greek: Διοσκουριάς) and Sebastopolis (Greek: Σεβαστόπολις).

sukhum sign abkhaz

  • South Ossetia
Ossetian: Khussar Iriston (Хуссар Ирыстон)
Georgian: Samkhreti Oseti (სამხრეთი ოსეთი)
Russian: Yuzhnaya Osetiya (Южная Осетия), or Yugo-osetiya (Юго-Осетия)

The Ossetian word for “Ossetia”, Iriston, is constructed from the Ossetian endonym Ir--stan, just “Tajikistan” and all those “stan” countries (because Ossetian is an Iranian language).

See also: SamachabloShida KartliTskhinvali Region.

  • Tbilisi
Georgian: თბილისი
Ossetian: Kalak (Калак)
Mingrelian: Karti (ქართი)

The capital and largest city of Georgia. Known historically in English (and currently in many languages) as Tiflis (Russian: Тифлис), which is similar to how “Tbilisi” is pronounced by English-speakers today (/Ti-bli-si/). Though derived from “Tbilisi”, “Tiflis” was re-georgianized as Tpilisi (ტფილისი, which looks strange as a Georgian word). I will generally refer to the city as “Tiflis” in historical contexts and “Tbilisi” in modern contexts.

The Ossetian name for Tbilisi, Kalak, comes from the Georgian word kalaki, meaning “city”, presumably bestowed because Tbilisi is the nearest real city to South Ossetia. The Mingrelian name for the city, Karti, comes from kart, the Georgian ethnic endonym (suggesting Karts and Mingrelians as separate ethnic groups). Abkhaz uses this name as well (Қарҭ).

  • Tskhinval(i)
Georgian: ცხინვალი
Russian, Ossetian: Tskhinval (Цхинвал; see -i)
Ossetian (alternate): Chreba (Чъреба)

The capital (indeed, the only city) of South Ossetia. From 1934 to 1961 the city was renamed Staliniri, after some Soviet politician. The Georgian keyboard transcription of ცხინვალი is Cxinvali. If you Google Image Search this word, you will find almost exclusively pictures of people dead and injured from war.

ossetian beer staliniri

It’s difficult to find maps with “Staliniri”, but fortunately this Ossetian beer logo attests to the existence of the word. (UPDATE: I found such a map!)

  • Tskhinvali Region

A euphemism for South Ossetia. There is no analogous Sukhumi Region” because, as a commenter pointed out, South Ossetia’s autonomy was officially abolished after Georgian independence, whereas Abkhazia’s was not. (Recall that in Soviet times, Abkhazia was an ASSR (Autononomous Soviet Socialist Republic), while South Ossetia was merely an AO (Autonomous Oblast).)


17 thoughts on “Notes on Terminology

  1. Pingback: Armenian | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

  2. Love that Ossetian beer label! 😀 I also want to add that part of the reason Georgians refer to South Ossetia as Shida Kartli (more accurately Tkhinvali region), is that Georgia (since the time of Gamsakhurdia) no longer legally recognises South Ossetian autonomy. Georgia still recognises the autonomous status of Abkhazia (at least on paper), hence why Abkhazia isn’t called “Sukhumi region” or something like that.

    • I live near a university that has a copy. They also have the Rayfield history of Georgia and the new edition of de Waal’s book on Nagorno Karabakh, so I’ve got a lot to work on.

      Actually, I had a hard time finding the Hewitt book there because the title contains a British spelling (“Discordant Neighbours”), and the university library catalog didn’t match it with my American spelling (“Discordant Neighbors”). has the same problem, though ironically does not. Let that be a lesson to us all.

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  4. i would like to know the meaning for the word velia(kartlivelia).is there any records of expedition by colchians towards during 600-500 bc

    • I don’t know what the v means, but the eli part is a Georgian suffix indicating origin: a ruseli is a Russian, an amerikeli is an American, and so on. The a is just an English place suffix: Kartvelia (a word I’ve made up) = the land of the Kartvelians.

      About the Colchians, are you referring to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece? I’m afraid I know very little about that time period.

      • Your explanation of the eli (ელი) suffix is spot on, however, one of the two examples that you bring up is flawed: “ruseli” does not mean anything in the Georgian language. The Georgian word for a Russian is rusi (რუსი).

        Other examples where suffix eli is not used in the demonym:

        სომხეთი/ somkheti –> სომეხი/ somekhi (not სომხელი/ somkheli)
        თურქეთი/ turkeqti –> თურქი/ turki (not თურქელი/ turkeli)
        ჩეჩნეთი/ chechneti –> ჩეჩენი/ checheni (not ჩეჩნელი/ chechneli)
        აბხაზეთი/ abkhazeti –> აბხაზი/ abkhazi (not აბხაზელი/ abkhazeli)
        ოსეთი/ oseti –> ოსი/ osi (not ოსელი/ oseli)
        სვანეთი/ svaneti –> სვანი/ svani (not სვანელი/ svaneli)
        ჩეხეთი/ chekheti –> ჩეხი/ chekhi (not ჩეხელი/ chekheli)

        Then there are these two, that are still different from others:

        საფრანგეთი/ saprangeti –> ფრანგი/ prangi (not (სა)ფრანგელი/ (sa)prangeli
        საბერძნეთი/ saberdzneti –> ბერძენი/ berdzeni (not (სა)ბერძნელი/ (sa)berdzneli

        For some countries, there seems to be some confusion and at least in practice multiple forms of denonyms are used:

        სერბეთი/ serbeti –> both სერბი/ serbi and სერბელი/ serbeli
        სლოვაკეთი/ slovaketi –> both სლოვაკი/ slovaki and სლოვაკელი/ slovakeli
        Personally I would definitely use serbi, but I am not so sure about slovaki/slovakeli one.

        These are all that I could think of off the top of my head, though I am sure there must be more. Notice that most of these are denonyms for places from either inside Georgia or from its immediate neighborhood.

        • Thanks for the correction. I’ve certainly used რუსელი, თურქელი, and სომხელი in conversation and been understood, but I guess that was just because the listeners were able to figure out what I meant.

          I’d complain about the abundance of irregularities in Georgian, but in the case of naming nationalities and languages, English is actually worse. For example, when I was in Istanbul I constantly heard Turks refer to “Arabish”, “Fransish”, and “Rusish”, presumably by analogy with “Turkish” and “English”.

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  6. “Though derived from “Tbilisi”, “Tiflis” was re-georgianized as Tpilisi (ტფილისი, which looks strange as a Georgian word).”

    As a matter of fact, both “Tiflis” and “Tbilisi (თბილისი)” are derived from Tpilisi (ტფილისი), so Tpilisi predates Tiflis and thus could not possibly be its re-georganization.

    ტფილისი (from ტფილი, the old Georgian word for “warm”) is the original name of the city (endonym). Over the centuries, the word ტფილი became თბილი due to language change and the name of the city consequently morphed as well. The city was officially called ტფილისი (Tpilisi) in the Georgian language all the way up until 1936, though purpotedly there is evidence of the written use of current form of the name of the city (Tbilisi) as far back as at least 1795.

    თბილი remains the contemporary Georgian word for “warm”. You are most likely already familiar with the legend of the foundation of the city, which attempts to explain what “warmness” has to do with it.

    As for “Tiflis” – well that one has always only been an exonym.

    • Serves me right for presenting my conjecture as a fact. I’ll fix this.

      My thought was that ტფილისი couldn’t be a native Georgian word because it violates consonant harmony, with ტ being ejective and ფ being aspirated. Do you have any idea how such a word came about?

  7. Wikipedia has a rather interesting take on the etymology of the name “Tskhinvali”; I have heard of this explanation multiple times in the past, though I have never come across any authotitative source on the subject.

    “The name of Tskhinvali is derived from the Old Georgian Krtskhinvali (Georgian: ქრცხინვალი), from earlier Krtskhilvani (Georgian: ქრცხილვანი), literally meaning “the land of hornbeams”.”

    • And from Wiktionary:

      First attested in the 14th century.

      From Middle Georgian, from Old Georgian ქრცხილვანი ‎(krcxilvani), from ქრცხილი ‎(krcxili, “hornbeam”) + -ოვანი ‎(-ovani, “adjectival suffix”).

      The earliest form was probably *ქრცხილოვანი ‎(krcxilovani), *ქრცხილოანი ‎(krcxiloani). In the 15th century it developed into კრცხილვანი ‎(ḳrcxilvani) (the ქ ‎(k) → კ ‎(ḳ) development is regular in Middle Georgian). Due to metathesis of the consonants and due to natural drift in the language, the first two consonants of the root (*კ ‎(ḳ) and *რ ‎(r)) were lost, while *ლ ‎(l) was replaced with the more convenient *ნ ‎(n) (and vice versa. The same development is seen in Old Georgian ჟილვანი ‎(žilvani) → ჟინვალი ‎(žinvali)).

      In all forms of the term the root is *ქრცხილ- ‎(krcxil-) (or later *კრცხილ- ‎(ḳrcxil-)), suffixed with -ოვანი ‎(-ovani, “having certain characteristics or qualities”), where ო ‎(o) is lost due to phonetic contraction. Old Georgian ქრცხილა ‎(krcxila) (modern რცხილა ‎(rcxila, “hornbeam”)) was the name of a certain type of an endemic tree (of genus Carpinus) commonly found in this region. Thus, the literal meaning of the toponym can be viewed as “the land of hornbeams”.

      Of course, this raises the further question: wtf is a hornbeam?

      • Well, I’ve only ever come across the name of this plant (რცხილა) when the context is discussion (usually written) on the etymology of the name Tskhinvali. The fact that a native speaker of Georgian, who has spent most of his life in Tbilisi has never heard of this plant makes me think that hornbeam is a rather little-known plant that does not have much of a significance for contemporary Georgians (esp. for urban dwellers like myself), though I suppose it could just be that I was ignorant of the existence of a plant with this name whereas most other Georgians know of it? I doubt, but I guess it is possible.

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