Why Are Georgia and Georgia Both Named Georgia?

What the Deep South and the former USSR have in common.

St. George, slaying the dragon

The Web site of the president of Georgia was temporarily moved to servers based in Atlanta, Georgia, over the weekend, after what appeared to be an attack by Russian hackers. The move was overseen by a Georgian-born executive at a technology company based in Georgia (the state), who happened to be on vacation in Georgia (the country) when the fighting started. Why does a country that was formerly part of the USSR have the same name as a state in the American Deep South?

Both got their present-day monikers from the British. The name of the country comes from the Russian word Gruzia, which was in turn derived from the Persian and Turkish versions of the name George, Gorj and Gurju. It’s not clear when the Brits started using the word Georgia in place of Gruzia, but scholars believe the switch happened sometime in the late Middle Ages.

In their native tongue, Georgians refer to themselves as the Kartveli and to their country as Sakartvelo. But the Kartveli have for many centuries been associated with George, the Roman soldier and Christian martyr. (They adopted Christianity under Roman rule in the 330s.) The Arabs, Ottomans, and Persians—who ruled over the country at various times until the Russians took control in 1801—chose to name Sakartvelo after its beloved patron saint, whose image dotted the art and architecture of the region.

The American Georgia, on the other hand, was named after King George II of England, who granted the state its charter in 1732. The –ia suffix, meaning “state of,” comes from the Greek and was tacked onto the end of many place names via the vast imperial and lingual legacy of the Romans. The name George became popular in Western Europe only after the Crusades, when knights traveling to the Holy Land came in contact with the widespread veneration of the saint among the Eastern Christians—in places like Georgia. (George became the patron saint of England in the 1340s.) Meanwhile, the saint’s name derives from Greek and refers to a tiller of land. In that respect, both Georgia and Georgia live up to their names.

We may refer to both the country and the state by the same name, but the homonymy of Georgia and Georgia doesn’t exist in Russian. The soldiers storming the border this week might say they were advancing into Gruzia, as opposed to the American region—which they would pronounce as Gee-OR-gee-ah.

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Explainer thanks Sue Davis of Denison University and Svante Cornell of Johns Hopkins University.