The great commoner

The name George is of Greek origin and means tiller of the earth or farmer. It is therefore a common name in two ways: Many people bear it, and it has a most humble meaning - as contrasted by names like Earl or Roy, for instance. Yet the name has belonged both to ordinary people and to extraordinary ones - kings and farmers, rebels and presidents, saints and rock stars.

The ancient name has spread alongside Christianity, where it seems to have a special status. First, it is the name of a powerful saint, Saint George who killed the dragon. There are other saints named George, but their legends are less colourful. Now this George's story is not just evil anti-dragon propaganda, for in reality it was the Devil that he fought and conquered. As a hero of the people, the saint became widely popular in medieval Europe, and his battle has been depicted in uncountable innumerable paintings and sculptures. Needless to say, generations of Christians were inspired to name their children after him - and after each other. In this way, the name became tradition.

The second important aspect within Christianity is that the name symbolises humility. One who is a farmer provides food for others. He lives close to earth doing honest work. He therefore has a better chance of salvation than the haughty and ambitious. For, as we all know, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter Heaven.

The original Greek name is constructed from Ge, which means earth, and ergon, meaning work. The name Γεωργιος (Georgios) is still in use in modern Greek. While the name was pronounced with a hard G (as in goat) in ancient times, the current Greek pronunciation is something like Ye-or-yios. Cue chaos, confusion, and mutation. While other names of an even more ancient and foreign origin may have changed more, George has done a pretty good job while spreading through the world.

Let's follow the hard-g strain first. Since it is oldest, it stands to reason it should be the least common - people love changing their languages now and then. George is still used with a hard G in Romania, with Gheorghe; in Russia and Bulgaria, with Georgi; and in Germany, with Georg.

The newer y-sound is more popular. As previously mentioned, it is the current form in Greece. It is also found in Russia, with Yuri, in Ukraine, with Yurko, and in the Czech Republic, as Jirka and Jiri. In Sweden, the name Göran is also pronounced with a y sound. The Germans (and related languages) have a number of variations; Jörg and Jörgen, Jürg and Jürgen, probably because of the saint's huge popularity in that country.

And finally, the weird ones. G, often accompanied by J, has undergone a strange evolution in many of the European alphabets. And along with the letters, the name George has changed as well. Some of them start with a d sound: Djordje in Serbian, György in Hungarian, Jerzy in Polish, Giorgio in Italian, and our own George in English. Some begin with a variation upon a voiced fricative: French Georges, and Dutch Gurge or Jurge*. The Spanish have gone one step further - the consonants in Jorge are usually pronounced like H. Finally, there is Varghese in the Indian language of Malayalam, which is a nice, if big, change from the norm.

Some famous Georges include King George I, II, III, IV, V and VI of England, and King George I and II of Greece. Also George Berkeley, George Best, George Bush and son, George Carlin George Harrison, George Eliot (pen name) George Foreman, George Lucas, George Michael, George Orwell (pen name), George Santayana, George Washington, and many others.

The feminine form of Georgios is Georgia. Hoewever, this word means agriculture and is used for a former Soviet country and a fertile American state rather than for baby girls. Georgina, Georgiana or Georgette are the most likely choices if a girl is to be named after a George.

St George's day is on April 23rd, and everyone named George or something similar may celebrate their name day then.

* I think. I haven't been able to verify the pronunciation of Jurge/Gurge, so any Dutch people, feel free to correct me.