According to 19th-century Russian historians, Avarians' neighbors usually referred to them by the exonyms Lezgins, which was a generic term at the time and/or Tavlins (tavlintsy). Vasily Potto wrote that those to the south usually knew them as Tavlins (tavlintsy) and their neighbors "on the other side of the mountains, in Georgia" referred to them as Lezgins. "The words in different languages have the same meaning ... mountain dwellers highlanders".
No single ethnic group was known as Lezgins prior to the Russian Revolution, and the name was not usually used by the Lezgins themselves. Nikolai Dubrovin wrote: "Chechnya, with its rich mountain pastures, mountain slopes covered with dense forest, with its plain, irrigated by many rivers and rich vegetation, is a perfect contrast to the neighboring barren and rocky parts of Dagestan populated by an Avarian tribe, mostly known by us as Lezgins".
The name Tavlin is believed to be from the Turkic tau, meaning "mountain". Those known as Tavlins usually have origins in the upper parts of two tributaries of the Sulak River: the Andiyskoe Koisu and Avarskoye Koisu.
Potto also claimed that members of Avarian tribe also often referred to themselves by the alternate endonym maarulal, also meaning "mountaineer".
According to the historian Sergey Tolstov, Avarians originated in Khurasan, south-east of the Caspian Sea, and migrated to the Caucasus. These geographical origins apparently link them to the Hurrians of Subartu.