The Names of Georgia, Part 2

Posted on April 29, 2013 by

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When I started taking Spanish in the seventh grade, the first thing the teacher did was assign all the students Spanish names etymologically equivalent to their real ones. Since my name is Nick, I was given the name Nico. It was a painless way for all of us to feel a little Spanish, and so I did the same thing when I got to Georgia, and told everyone in my village that my name is Niko. In addition to endearing me to Georgians, this saves me from cringing every time they try to say “Nick”; lacking the short “i” sound, they say either “neck” or “neek.” Besides Niko, some of the children at my school call me Nikoloz, equivalent to Nicholas, various townspeople call me Nika, another version of Niko, and my host grandparents call me Nikala, which I think is about equivalent to Nicky.

My seventh grade classmates and I had a lot of fun with our Spanish names, so I figured I would do the same with my Georgian students. However, I quickly discovered that many of their names don’t have any ready English equivalent. Sure, there are names like Luka, Mariami, and Giorgi, which are clearly Luke, Mary and George (some of the Giorgis even introduced themselves to me as George without any prompting), and there are names which sound almost identical to some English names, like Lizi (Lizzy) and Keti (Katie). But Eka? Beka? Vakho? Lali? Koba? Tea? Dato? Rezo? I couldn’t think of what names to give them. It seemed unfair to give English names to some and only some of the students, so I abandoned the idea altogether.

But it turns out that things are not quite as bad as I thought they were. The most important thing I learned is that many of my students’ names are diminutives and not full names (although Georgians don’t draw as sharp a distinction between full names and diminutives as English-speakers generally do). Dato, which seemed very foreign to me at first, is in fact a short form of Davit, which is obviously David. So a boy named Dato can be given either David or Dave as an English name. Similarly, Eka is short for Ekaterina and Tazo is short for Tamaz (Thomas), so Eka can be called Kate and Tazo can be called Tom. Keti is short for Ketevan (the name of a Georgian queen), which is a Georgianized form of Ekaterina, so Katie actually is appropriate port of Keti.

Sometimes equivalent names don’t sound similar at all, which somewhat defeats the purpose of finding equivalents in the first place (since an arbitrarily assigned name doesn’t feel like your name). Koba is short for Iacob, which is Jacob, but Jake doesn’t sound anything like Koba (though you could call Koba Coby, if you like that name). Soso is short for Ioseb, which is Joseph, but Joe doesn’t sound anything like Soso. In these cases, the student might be called the full form of the equivalent name, even if this makes the equivalence slightly artificial.

Learning the full form of the name doesn’t help any if the full form doesn’t exist in English. Beso, for instance, is short for Besarion (the name, most famously, of Stalin’s father), which I’ve never heard of being used in English. Rezo is short for Revaz and Vakho is short for Vakhtang, both of which are Georgian names with no foreign equivalents. (By the way, doesn’t Vakhtang sound like a funny name for a little boy? It seems me – and several Georgians have agreed with me here – that native Georgian names, like Vakhtang, Gvantsa, Nugzar, and Emzar, tend to sound like names for old people. The situation is exactly the same in English: Greek and Hebrew names like Katherine and John sound young, but native English names like Alfred, Edith, Edmund, and Mildred sound very, very old.)

For a few names, there is no long form. Saba, a Greek name born by several saints, is just Saba, and though it is popular in Eastern Europe, it does not exist in English. Beka isn’t a diminutive name either, and as far as English names go, there’s little one can do for such boys except to tell them that Becca is a girl’s name. Nino, the name of the saint who brought Christianity to Georgia, is an odd case. In America and probably other Anglophone countries it would be recognized as a man’s name, the diminutive of Latin names like Antonino. A Georgian girl named Nino might be given the name Nina, the feminine form of the Latin Nino, but this is not correct etymologically (the Georgian name may be of ultimately Greek origin, but this not known with any certainty).

Finally, as in English, there are some names (almost always feminine) which come from things. Ia is Violet, Lali is Ruby, and Lili, contrary to the appearance of being a false cognate, really is Lily.

So what is the English teacher in Georgia to do? Personally, I value etymology above other considerations, and so I go with the equivalent wherever I can, even if it means turning Koba into Jake. Where this is not possible, there are four options. The first is to pick a name that sounds similar, such that Rezo becomes Ray and Otar becomes Otis. I don’t like doing it this way, although my seventh-grade Spanish teacher did (which is why my friend Chase was called Carlos). The second is to let the students choose whatever names they want. I haven’t tried this, so I don’t know what success it would have (though my guess is that many of them would want to be called Gangnam). Third, the English teacher can simply refer to the students by their usual Georgian names, but with her native accent. This can be a problem for Americans and Australians, since Tato and Nato will not appreciate being called Tado and Nado. Last, the idea of English names can be dropped altogether and Georgian-sounding Georgian names can be used. I do this much of the time because I was late in getting started with English-naming the students, but a teacher more on top of things could do better.