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Home » Place Names, Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus, The Caucasus

What’s in a (Country) Name: The Georgia/Grúziya Controversy

Submitted by on December 12, 2011 – 6:35 pm 23 Comments |  
Map of Georgia Showing Different Names Used For the CountryNames of countries in foreign languages (exonyms) often bear no relationship to the names of the same countries in their own official language or languages (endonyms). Such differences are generally accepted without complaint; the fact that English speakers refer to Deutschland as Germany and Nihon as Japan is not a problem for the governments or the people of those countries.

Occasionally, however, diplomats from a given country request that other governments change its name. In 1985, francophone Ivory Coast asked the international community to use its name in French only: Côte d’Ivoire. The request was honored by governments across the globe, although many English-language news agencies still use “Ivory Coast.” When East Timor gained independence in 2002, it asked to be called Timor-Leste, leste being the Tetum* word for “east.” (As “Timor” derives from a Malay word meaning “east,” Timor-Leste would translate into English as “East-East.”) Most countries followed suit, but Australia still uses “East Timor.” Such rejections of name-change requests usually reflect diplomatic tensions. Although Burma has insisted on being called Myanmar since 1989, Britain and the United States continue to call it Burma, in deference to Burma’s own democratic opposition. News agencies in the United States vary on this score. It will be interesting to see how this issue works out now that Burma is opening diplomatically and perhaps moving toward democratization.

Diplomatic requests for country name-changes do not necessarily reflect a desire to substitute indigenous names for those of foreign derivation. Both “Myanmar” and “Burma” are Burmese terms for the country—pronounced “Myanma” and “Bama”—the former being more formal, the latter more colloquial. In some cases, foreign governments are asked to switch from one exonym to another. Over the past several years, Georgia has been trying to convince a number of countries to call it “Georgia,” even though the Georgian name for the country is Sakart’velo.

            As the map shows, Georgia is referred to by a number of distinctive names in different languages. The government of Georgia has no problems with most of these terms. That Armenians call the country Vrastan, for example, is not an issue; the President of Georgia recently congratulated the Georgia-based Armenian-language newspaper Vrastan for “strengthening friendly relations between the two neighbor nations.” But the Tblisi government does object to the Russian term Gruziya, and all names derived from it. In June 2011, the Georgian foreign ministry announced with satisfaction that South Korea had agreed to drop Gruzya in favor of “Georgia.” It also pledged to continue to pressure Japan, China, Bulgaria, Belarus, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia, and Ukraine to make the same change.

Several years earlier, in 2005, Georgia began lobbying Israel to drop Gruzia in favor of Georgia. The Israeli case was considered particularly important, as a Hebrew variant of “Georgia” had been widely used before the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union shifted the designation to the Russian-derived term.  Georgian diplomats argued that the switch to Gruzia could generate historical confusion in Israel, as “Georgian” has long been used to denote the Christian pilgrims and monks from Sakart’velo who once maintained prominent positions in the Holy Land. It was also suggested that Georgia objected to the “Gruzni jokes,” targeting Georgian Jews, that circulate widely in Israel. The Georgian ambassador in Tel Aviv, however, insisted that such crude humor is “an internal Israeli matter.”

The name Georgia itself has a complex and contested history. Various etymologies have been suggested, but most scholars now agree that it derives from “the Persian-Arabic designation of the Georgians—gurğ—which reached the Western European crusaders and pilgrims in the Holy Land who rendered the name as Georgia (also Jorgania, Giorginia, etc.).” The use of “Georgia,” in its various forms, seems to have been solidified in Western Europe through a false etymology; many people concluded that the name must have stemmed from Saint George, an exceedingly popular figure in Georgian Christianity. Supposedly, 365 Orthodox churches in the country are named after Saint George.

As a geography teacher in the United States, I would not mind the international community dropping “Georgia” altogether in favor of Sakart’velo. This is not a matter of preferring endonyns to exonyms; on the contrary, I usually use “Ivory Coast” rather than “Côte d’Ivoire,” as I see no reason to translate an English term into French. The problem with “Georgia” is rather the confusion generated by the existence of a U.S. state with that name. Internet searches of “Georgia” mostly return articles on the American state, making it cumbersome to conduct research on the country that shares its name.

Map Showing Countries Blocking YouTube in Mid 2010Georgian nationals often find this situation frustrating as well. But rather than changing the exonym of their country, some would prefer to rename American Georgia. In response to a YouTube video of Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind” in early December 2011, one commentator opined, “americans rename your matherfucker state! when i want to look something about my country searching system show me your state! from GEORGIA (caucasus) with hate.” That comment, no surprise, elicited an outpouring of obscenity-laced vitriol from offended Americans. One responder, however, tried a more diplomatic approach: “This is an AMERICAN website! Georgian or russian language websites might cater more to your desires. Or maybe you might try searching for T’bilisi. Beautiful city that one! In fact both your country and our state are lovely places!”

But to what extent is YouTube an “American website?” The company, now a subsidiary of Google, is indeed headquartered in San Bruno, California. But the firm isList of YouTube Languages highly international. YouTube videos are readily accessible across most of the world, although a number of countries periodically put up total or partial blocks. Increasingly, YouTube is customized to various languages. According to the Wikipedia article on the company, “The interface of the website is available with localized versions in 34 countries,” employing “51 different language versions.” Georgian is not yet one of these languages, but there is a Facebook page for “YouTube in Georgia.”

*Tetum and Portuguese are the two official languages of Timor-Leste


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  • Fascinating!

    I’ve always thought that Leste in Timor-Leste was from the French word for ‘East’…

    Re: the Israeli name for Georgia, the use of the Russian-derived “gruzia” may be strengthened by the fact that /dzh/ is not a native sound in Hebrew, whereas /gr/ is perfectly fine as far as the Hebrew sound system goes.

    The association of Georgia with St. George is further highlighted by his image on the coat of arms of the Georgian Orthodox Church:

    Other examples of countries insisting on what name other countries should use include:  Belarus’ (which insists that the Russians drop the Russian name Belorussia and use the Belarusian name instead), Ukraine (with or without “the” in English, and also what preposition is to be used with it in Russian:, and Kazakhstan (which at one point insisted on dropping the “h” in its English name, even though their own “airforce-one” plane proudly features the country name with the “h” on board).

    Here’s more on endonyms and exonyms:

    • I can remember my mother’s old atlas from the 1950s labeling what is now called Belarus with the English translation “White Russia,” though Ukraine was neither “On the Border” nor was it “Little Russia.”

    • Sandro

       Given that historically Kartvelians are natives of ancient Persia who migrated to the Caucasus in ancient times , the St. George theory is wrong. Their name “Gurji” does not derive from St. George, but from a Persian word for their peoples “gurji”. This ethonym is widely documented in the Middle East and in modern day Iran’s historical records. My suspicion for this St. George theory is that the Georgians wish to Christianize their history and distance themselves from their Shia-Zoroastrian-Muslim-Kurdish-Persian origins and “Caucasianize” themselves, thus strengthening their outlandish claims to lands that do not in reality belong to them and ever did (the so called “Sanigia” aka Ubykh/Abaza land around Sochi to Anapa, Abkhazia and Ossetia).

      Such truths should be documented and widely known so as to counterargue the Kartveli claims onto nations and lands that were never theirs. This will also in fact keep their neo-nationalism and intense racism towards their minorities and non-“Georgian” neighbors in check (hopefully). But I suppose no one can force anyone to stop printing lies and causing unnecessary controversy. I liked your article but there are a good deal of faults that I could pick out.

      • Well, now, even supposing one accepts your migration from Persia theory, how could Georgians have “Shia” or “Muslim” origins when you say they migrated to the Caucasus in ancient times, one would presume before the ministry of St. Nino in the early 300s, at least before the life of Muhammad PBUH in the early 600s or the Sunni-Shi’a split of the mid-600s.  Could it be that you think using these labels discredits the Georgians?

        As to the idea of a historical “claim onto nations and lands,” a claim to be the first residents of an area (laughable as such claims are) has no weight under international law.  Generally, the internationally recognized successor of a state has a legitimate claim to the lands within the borders of the state it superceded.  Thus, for instance, the newly independent Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in 1783, properly laid claim to the lands granted to the British colony of Pennsylvania that it succeeded.  The Republic of Georgia, whatever the derivation of the word, properly claimed the lands of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia.  If a state’s claim to land were based on the etymology of the state’s name, France could properly only claim the original homeland of the Franks, somewhere in the German Rheinland, England could only claim the homeland of the Angles, in northern Germany, and India could only claim the Indus valley of Pakistan.

        • Great point about Shia and Muslim being later terms than the appearance of Georgia as such. And great point about etymology of state names vs. their territory. Let me just add another example: Russia would only claim a small part of Sweden…

      • Thank you for your comments. The article itself mentions both theories as to the origin of the term Georgia. I didn’t say that either is correct, only that there is emphasis on St. George in Georgian Church.

        As for the theory about migration from Persia, there doesn’t seem to be genetic or linguistic evidence to support it.

    • just saw this. The ‘Leste ‘ is from Portuguese. Timor was colonized by Portugal for hundreds of years. The Tetun word for east is Lorosae. Prior to independence one option for naming the country was Timor Lorosae.

  • Thomas Wier

    Speaking as someone who does research on the Georgian language, on the one hand, I’d find it VERY useful to have two different words for “Georgia” in English (like German Georgia (USA) vs. Georgien (Sakartvelo)). Of course it’s somewhat ridiculous for Georgians to insist on others changing ‘Gruziya’ to ‘Georgia’, given that there is no history of ‘Georgia’ in those other countries, and ‘Gruziya’ does not have any derogatory meaning in those languages, so maybe ‘Sakartvelo’ would be best to keep the two distinct. However, even this would not be a perfect solution since ‘Sakartvelo’ itself means ‘that associated with Kartvelians’, and as most of us know there are plenty of non-Kartvelians in Georgia (Abkhaz, Armenians, Ossetians, Azeris, Batsbis, Kists, Chechens, Greeks, Jews, etc.). So in my publications and comments I use whatever is the most common form in the language I’m speaking: Georgia, Georgien, Sakartvelo, Gruziya, etc.
    Incidentally, my suspicion is that the name Georgia actually underwent two separate instances of folk etymology:  first a west Georgian root, probably related to Mingrelian or Laz *korti- was borrowed into Persian to reflect all Kartvelian tribes as living in *Kortistan very early on, sometime in the first millennium BC-AD.  This was then folk-etymologized within Persian to Gurj, since the totemic animal of the Iberian kingdom was the wolf (the great 5th c. AD liberator-king Vakhtang Gorgasali literally means ‘Vakhtang clothed in a Wolf-skin’), and Gurj is similar to the Persian word for wolf.  Then, later, and in an entirely separate context, Gurjistan was borrowed into Greek where it was again folk-etymologized from *Gurgia to Georgia, since ancient Colchis was famed among the Greeks for the richness of its fields and agriculture (_georgos_ meaning ‘farmer’ in Greek; we also get the word ‘pheasant’ from the ancient city Phasis, modern Poti).  I think the connection to St. George was made only considerably later, after the introduction of Christianity.

    [Thomas Wier]

    • Many thanks for the deeply informative comment. It seems that Georgia objects to “Gruziya” merely because it is Russian. The non-Kartvelian presence in Georgia is certainly important. Do such peoples ever object to “Sakartvelo?” 

      Fascinating etymological material — deeper than what one finds in standard sources. 

      I will be blogging later this week or next week on the place names “Iberia” and “Albania,” both of which appear both in the Caucasus and in Europe. I would certainly welcome your comments when I do so

  • Interesting. As an Israeli i had no idea that this was an issue for anybody. I grew up with “Gruzia” and I have never heard anyone use “Georgia”. 

    That said, a quick google search revealed that the name has been changed or at least added. For instance the Foriegn ministry site lists (in Hebrew) “The Republic of Georgia” (Gruzia) and the Hebrew wiki entry list the name as “Georgia”  while noting that it has changed from “Gruzia”.

    “Gruzia”, I hardly knew you…

    • Thanks for the update. It will be interesting to see if Israelis switch from Gruzia to Georgia. 

  • Leste is a borrowing into Tetum from Portuguese, where it was probably borrowed from French l’est complete with the French article.  French in turn borrowed it, along with nord, sud, ouest from English.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Fascinating — many thanks. 

  • I suppose it should be mentioned that the State of Georgia is named in honor of George II, King of Great Britain, during whose reign it was settled.

    • Natela Popkhadze

      Yes, and add the century when it happened – for most readers do mot know it.

  • Tools like Twitter really highlight user’s local vs global thinking. Never thinking that using hashtag #Georgia could be the nation or SE US State. Same with cities like Troy, Columbus, Dublin, Paris and even Atlanta. You can assume which one I mean, but you don’t know. That’s why we’ve adopted the practice of using “#CitynameST”. Exceptions are the primary markets – #Atlanta is the one in Georgia (US), #Columbus is the one in Ohio – the others are #ColumbusGA, #ColumbusMS, etc. And #Georgia has to defer to the nation, so #GeorgiaUS is the one north of #Florida. Eventually these will become standardized twitter-speak protocols. Until then, consider the source before assuming that Paris is the one in France instead of Texas.

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  • Josh L

    Not to take a side in the Georgia vs. Georgia brawl (though I do live in the US one), but I was interested to realize, comparing numbers, that the state has about twice the population of the republic!

  • Shunfa

    the fact that English speakers refer to Deutschland as Germany and Nihon as Japan is not a problem for the governments or the people of those countries.”

    Coming from the Netherlands does lead to confusions with our easterly neighbors, the Germans. In the English language, the Netherlands (plural) is inhabited by Dutch people. In the Dutch language, Nederland (singular) is inhabited by Nederlanders (who during soccer matches prefer to shout Holland, even though this only refers to two of our twelve provinces). In the English language, Germany is inhabited by Germans who in their own language refer to their country as Deutschland. 
    I’m sure when Germans say they speak Deutsch, some might also confuse them as coming from the Netherlands…

    • Natela Popkhadze

      Two Georgias (one in the USA and another at the area situated nowadays somewhat south-east of the Crimea, are a problem to humans and computers alike. Kolkheti is mentioned in cuneiform Sumerian texts in 1710 BCE. Aia means “a father” in Sumerian, hence Aiakolkheti meaning fatherland Kolkheti is more appropriate name for my country and my nation, than Georgia. Georgia is mentioned in texts only since the first century,- and only for a part of our indigenous territory, hence Georgia is inappropriate for our country.

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  • ES71

    Why not call it Sakartvelo?
    When you say Georgia, most people think the US state of Georgia.
    At least, gruzia is a unique name but if Georgians object to the Russian version so strongly I would prefer Sakartvelo.

    • It’s an idea. But the name Sakartvelo would not be familiar to the English-speaking readers at all…

  • Natela Popkhadze

    The Georgian population has been mentioned in the first century by Pliny in Historia Naturalis, by Tacitus in the first century in his Germania and by Pomponius Mela in the first century. The Georgoi//Georgians inhabited the peninsula called the Crimea nowadays and nearby areas including the northern coast of the Caspian//Hurkanian//Hyrkanian Lake(“Sea”), The northern neighbors were nomadic population and that is why the Aiakolkhetikartu population of that area was called “Georgoi” in Latin texts of the above-mentioned scientists in the first century. “What’s in a name?” (a William Shakespear’s phrase from “Romeo and Juliette” was the title of my publication dealing with the names of my multimillennial country and ethnicity