The Names of Georgia

Posted on March 18, 2013 by

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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…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 Northeast 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.