Etymology of Kazakh
Kazakh central asian horseman. The Russian Museum of Ethnography, 1910
The Kazakhs likely began using that name during the 15th or the 16th century. There are many theories on the origin of the word Kazakh or Qazaq. Some speculate that it comes from the Turkish verb qaz ("to wander"), because the Kazakhs were wandering steppemen; or that it derives from the Proto-Turkic word khasaq (a wheeled cart used by the Kazakhs to transport their yurts and belongings).
Another theory on the origin of the word Kazakh (originally Qazaq) is that it comes from the ancient Turkic word qazğaq, first mentioned on the 8th century Turkic monument of Uyuk-Turan. According to Turkic linguist Vasily Radlov and Orientalist Veniamin Yudin, the noun qazğaq derives from the same root as the verb qazğan ("to obtain", "to gain"). Therefore, qazğaq defines a type of person who seeks profit and gain.
Kazakh was a common term throughout medieval Central Asia, generally with regard to individuals or groups who had taken or achieved independence from a figure of authority. Timur described his own youth without direct authority as his Qazaqliq ("Qazaq-ness"). At the time of the Uzbek nomads' Conquest of Central Asia, the Uzbek Abu'l-Khayr Khan had differences with the Chinggisid chiefs Giray/Kirey and Janibeg/Janibek, descendants of Urus Khan.
Kazakh family inside a Yurt
These differences probably resulted from the crushing defeat of Abu'l-Khayr Khan at the hands of the Qalmaqs. Kirey and Janibek moved with a large following of nomads to the region of Zhetysu/Semirechye on the border of Moghulistan and set up new pastures there with the blessing of the Moghul Chingisid Esen Buqa, who hoped for a buffer zone of protection against the expansion of the Oirats. It is not explicitly explained that to be the reason for later Kazakhs taking the name permanently, but it is the only historically verifiable source of the ethnonym. The group under Kirey and Janibek are called in various sources Qazaqs and Uzbek-Qazaqs (those independent of the Uzbek khans). The Russians originally called the Kazakhs 'Kirgiz' and later Kirghiz-Kaisak to distinguish them from the Kyrgyz proper.
In the 17th century, Russian convention seeking to distinguish the Qazaqs of the steppes from the Cossacks of the Imperial Russian Army suggested spelling the final consonant with "kh" instead of "q" or "k", which was officially adopted by the USSR in 1936.
- Kazakh – Казах
- Cossack – Казак
The Ukrainian term Cossack probably comes from the same Kypchak etymological root: wanderer, brigand, independent free-booter.
Their nomadic pastoral lifestyle made Kazakhs keep an epic tradition of oral history. The nation, which amalgamated nomadic tribes of various Kazakh origins, managed to preserve the distant memory of the original founding clans. It was important for Kazakhs to know their genealogical tree for no less than seven generations back (known as şejire, from the Arabic word shajara – "tree").