Popular Etymology

When I learned the word for neighbor – “mezobeli” (მეზობელი) – I immediately noticed that it contained the word “ezo” ეზო, which means “yard.” It might not be immediately obvious to everyone what the relation is there, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch, even if you don’t happen to know that in olden times, houses in cities were organized around shared courtyards. If you shared a courtyard with someone, you had a special relationship with them by default due to the pragmatic aspects of sharing some property, and ancient systems of law (like the Jewish Mishnah, which I once studied on a lark) go into great detail about the rules governing the sharing of courtyards and the conduct permitted in courtyards. In fact, modern Jewish communities construct ritual courtyards encompassing whole neighborhoods in order to extend rules governing courtyards to larger areas.

The point is, the modern concept of a “yard” – which tends to just be a backyard, i.e. the area behind someone’s house – is a sort of degenerate form of what a “yard” used to be throughout the vast majority of human history. And this is something that I am aware of because of my odd background – anthropology, theatre history, and Jewish law are a strange triple threat of courtyard lore and I doubt all that many people share this background – but again, even without this background, I think the average person could make the leap from “yard” as we understand it to “yard” as something that you might share with a neighbor or set of neighbors, which brings me around to the point – მეზობელი appears to be derived (and in a fairly regular way) from ეზო. (I mean, I could be wrong – it’s entirely possible that this is a coincidence and not a historical fact of the language; if so, this would be a “folk etymology.”)

Anyway, I’ve pointed this out to several people in Georgia and not one of them had noticed this. And this is far from a single isolated case – actually, every time I point out the relationship between one Georgian word and another, or a Georgian word and a related foreign word, it seems to come as a surprise to the person I point it out to.

შაბათი (shabati, meaning “Saturday”) is the most obvious one – it is a clear borrowing from Hebrew “shabbat” (also meaning “Saturday”) which is notable even if you haven’t studied Hebrew, because it’s also the root of the English words “Sabbath” and “sabbatical.” (The fact that the Sabbath is observed on Sunday in Christianity due to a historical accident, kind of like the reason Georgians have two Christmases.) Another religious one is ეკლესია (eklesia, meaning “church”) which borrowed directly from Greek and also has analogues in English (ecclesiastic, meaning “related to the church,” comes to mind) and other modern languages (“iglesia,” Spanish for “church”). Finally, you have a word like ადამიანი (“adamiani,” meaning “people” or “humans”) which appears to be derived from Adam, the Biblical first man. You might remember Aslan referring to humans as “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” in the Narnia books, which would prime you to pick up on the idea of referring to people through reference to the first people; or you might not.

But there’s tons, and not just related to religion – Georgian actually has a tremendous number of loanwords from English, Greek, Latin, Persian, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, German, Russian, and other languages, and the even the casual philologist will notice these in the course of studying Georgian.

So this leads me to wonder. Am I actually noticing these things more than Georgian people? If so, is it because I am explicitly looking for patterns in the language as a way of learning the language? Is it because English speakers have an enhanced sense of etymology, morphology, and word derivations as a whole? (Could this in turn be attributed to speaking a Franken-language cobbled together from Germanic and Italic roots?) Is it because I personally have a background in etymology and a broad general knowledge of relevant classical and modern languages?

One notable exception to the above observation – I find that Georgians very often know which words are Russian and are very quick to point these out, often with a tiny bit of resentment that the Russian word has supplanted the Georgian. Spitchka (match), pakhmelia (hangover), and lampuchka (light bulb) come to mind, but there are tons of these. It could be because they are more recent loans, or because of the political situation between Russia and Georgia.

So I guess I have a question for my Georgian readers – how would you describe your level of awareness of connections between related words in Georgian? Use the “ეზო” thing as an example – or for one that I consider even more obvious, what about the link between “საჭმელი” (satchmeli, food) and “ჭამე” (chame, eat!)? Are these things that you ever talk about, or study in school? Do you ever make jokes or pop-cultural references to word derivations?

Would a joke like this be possible in Georgian?

(Video: Whelmed, Clueless)

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8 Responses to Popular Etymology

  1. I do notice word derivations however I’d say that Georgians don’t tend to construct jokes around them. We do however benignly mock the usage of Russian words like spickha (asanti), poli (iataki), marshutka (samarshuto taksi), atvortka (saxraxnisi), kuxna (samzareulo) because employing these words makes one look a bit of country


  2. Mach says:

    The Russian words are continually declining in usage. Very few words remain are the only ones I can think of) that are not stigmatized to use. The major exception being the vehicle(car)-related terms. As for your question, many people are aware that a lot are borrowed from Persian. Turkish, and other languages, but almost nobody knows which ones exactly, with few exceptions (e.g “Panjara” window). These things are general knowledge, but not discussed much and never used in jokes or references. I think that your observation, that having English as a first language motivates searches for these connections, is an accurate one. The reason why people recognize Russian words is simply because most people can understand Russian, it’s simple as that. As in case with vehicles, there are no Georgian words for say computers or anything developed in past two centuries, because obviously this country was under Russian rule. By the way, interesting fact: for anatomical structures, during 1918-1921 somebodies, not sure who exactly, traveled to mountainous regions to write down the Georgian terminology for various parts our body so it could be used in the state University, established at that time of brief independence.


  3. Native perspective here... says:

    I agree with George; also, I have never heard “lampuchka”. Light bulb in Georgian is “natura”, and that’s what I’ve always heard.

    To answer your question, we notice if a word is borrowed from Russian, but not from other languages; this is because Georgians were forced to learn Russian under the Soviet Union, so exposure to Russian has been more “recent” compared to Turkish, Persian, etc…. I’m sure that way back in the day, we spoke “pure” Georgian, but with so many invasions, wars, trade routes, and so on taking place in Georgia, it’s only natural that we picked up a couple of loan words here and there.

    The reason you notice all this is because you’re learning the language and therefore have to learn rules, so naturally you look for “shortcuts” that will help with learning the language. Georgians already know the language, so they don’t bother thinking about it. Schools there don’t teach which words are borrowed from which language- Georgian grammar is already one of the toughest subjects for schoolchildren, why make it even harder?


  4. pasumonok says:

    neal, just general lack of interest in our history, that’s it…once upon a time persian was just as well forced upon georgians and our everyday language was full of persian words, and all of the high-rank people had 2 know it…so now, persian words like “larnaki” ( a vase), stayed in our language.
    the same with turkish: “saat” (watch, hour) “sapun” (soap)…
    i don’t think u notice those connections coz u’re foreign . i believe u notice them coz u like deconstructing words…
    of corz mezobeli comes form ezo…and megobari (friend) come from gobi… oh, i know u’ll appreciate the history behind this word:
    gobi is a huge pot. in the past, friends used to gather around a big pot and eat out of it together. so, me-gob-ari, is a gobi-mate, someone who shared a pot of food with u. poetic ha?
    so, next time u hear me–something-ari or me-something-eli (me-gob-ari, me-zob-eli), consider the middle root word to understand the origin.


  5. AIA says:

    I think nobody bothers to think about those things and I do not remember myself studying etymology in school. I did not pay attention to those either before I relocated from Georgia, started to travel and getting to know lots of people from different places.

    Russian words are easily spotted because most of them are not really integral part of the language unlike Turkish/Persian/Arabic ones. I would never use spitchka, stoli or pakhmelia in a formal speech (most of the time even in informal ones too), because its usually regarded as a sign of poor education. The reason for it is that it sounds like if you go back to US and say something like “I’ve just met the mezobeli, he looked a bit mtvrali”. Only exception is probably car parts because nobody really knows what are their names in Georgian, same with IT related terms that are all English (even though there are some made up new Georgian words for those).

    However, words like saati, fanjara, begara, televizori, tramvai are proper loans and most of the time the only words to describe object or event in Georgian language.


  6. Anonymous says:

    That clip is from Ten Things I Hate About You, not Clueless…


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