The ethnonym Ukrainians became widely accepted only in the 20th century after their territory obtained distinctive statehood in 1917. From the 14th to the 16th centuries, the Western portions of the European part of what is now known as Russia, the territories of northern Ukraine and Belarus (Western Rus') were largely known as Rus', continuing the tradition of Kievan Rus'. People of these territories were usually called Rus or Rusyns (known as Ruthenians in Western and Central Europe). The Ukrainian language appeared in the 14th – 16th centuries (with some prototypical features already evident in the 11th century), but at that time, it was mostly known as Ruthenian, like its brothers. In the 16th – 17th centuries, with the establishment of the Zaporizhian Sich, the notion of Ukraine as a separate country with a separate ethnic identity came into being. However, the ethnonym Ukrainians and the linguonym Ukrainian were used only occasionally, and the people of Ukraine usually continued to call themselves and their language Ruthenian. After the decline of the Zaporizhian Sich and the establishment of Imperial Russian hegemony in Ukraine, Ukrainians became more widely known by the Russian regional name, Little Russians (Malorossy), with the majority of Ukrainian élites espousing Little Russian identity. This official name (usually regarded now as colonial and humiliating) did not spread widely among the peasantry which constituted the majority of the population. Ukrainian peasants still referred to their country as Ukraine (a name associated with the Zaporizhian Sich, with the Hetmanate and with their struggle against Poles, Russians, Turks and Crimean Tatars) and to themselves and their language as Ruthenians/Ruthenian. With the publication of Ivan Kotliarevsky's Eneyida (Aeneid) in 1798, which established the modern Ukrainian language, and with the subsequent Romantic revival of national traditions and culture, the ethnonym Ukrainians and the notion of a Ukrainian language came into more prominence at the beginning of the 19th century and gradually replaced the words "Rusyns" and "Ruthenian(s)". In areas outside the control of the Russian/Soviet state until the mid-20th century (Western Ukraine), Ukrainians were known by their pre-existing names for much longer. The appellation Ukrainians initially came into common usage in Central Ukraine and did not take hold in Galicia and Bukovyna until the latter part of the 19th century, in Transcarpathia until the 1930s, and in the Prešov Region until the late 1940s.
The modern name ukrayintsi (Ukrainians) derives from Ukrayina (Ukraine), a name first documented in 1187. Several scientific theories attempt to explain the etymology of the term.
According to the traditional theory (especially predominant in Russia), it derives from the Proto-Slavic root *kraj-, which has two meanings, one meaning the homeland as in "nash rodnoi kraj" (our homeland), and the other "edge, border", and originally had the sense of "periphery", "borderland" or "frontier region" etc.
According to some new alternative Ukrainian historians such as Hryhoriy Pivtorak, Vitaly Sklyarenko and other scholars, translate the term "u-kraine" as "in-land", "home-land" or "our-country". The name in this context derives from the word "u-kraina" in the sense of "domestic region", "domestic land" or "country" (inside the country).
In the last few centuries the population of Ukraine experienced periods of Polonization and Russification, but preserved a common culture and a sense of common identity.