It is explained as being derived from trilinga, as in Trilinga Desa, "the country of the three lingas". According to a Hindu legend, Trilinga Desa is the land in between three Shiva temples namely Kaleshwaram, Srisailam and Draksharamam. Trilinga Desa forms the traditional boundaries of the Telugu region. The people who lived in these regions were also referred to as Telaga Caste seems to have been derived from Trilinga Desam. Other forms of the word, such as Telunga, Telinga, Telangana and Tenunga were also seen. It is also said that Trilinga, in the form "Triliggon" occurs in Ptolemy as the name of a locality to the east of the Ganga river. Other scholars compare Trilinga with other local names mentioned by Pliny, such as Bolingae, Maccocalingae, and Modogalingam. The latter name is given as that of an island in the Ganges. A. D. Campbell, in the introduction to his Telugu grammar, suggested that Modogalingam may be explained as a Telugu translation of Trilingam, and compared the first part of the word modoga, with mUDuga, a poetical form for Telugu mUDu, three. Bishop Caldwell, on the other hand, explained Modogalingam as representing a Telugu mUDugalingam, the three Kalingas, a local name which occurs in Sanskrit inscriptions and one of the Puranas. Kalinga occurs in the Ashoka Inscriptions, and in the form Kling, it has become, in the Malay country, the common word for the people of Continental India. According to K. L. Ranjanam, the word is derived from talaing, who were chiefs who conquered the Andhra region.
M. R. Shastri is of the opinion that it is from telunga, an amalgamation of the Gondi words telu, meaning "white", and the pluralization -unga, probably referring to white or fair-skinned people. According to G. J. Somayaji, ten- refers to "south" in Proto-Dravidian, and the word could be derived from tenungu meaning "people of the South". The ancient name for Telugu land seems to be telinga/telanga desa. It seems probable that the base of this word is teli, and that -nga, or gu is the common Dravidian formative element. A base teli occurs in Telugu (teli meaning "bright" and teliyuTa meaning "to perceive").
Telugu pandits commonly state Tenugu to be the proper form of the word, and explain this as the ‘mellifluous language’ from tene or honey. However, this claim does not appear to be supported by scholarly opinion. The word Kalinga might be derived from the same base as Telugu kaluguTa, to live to exist, and would then simply mean "human".