Geography Glossary


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  • Africa
    The second largest continent in area and population after Asia. It is in the eastern hemisphere, south of the Mediterranean and adjoining Asia on the northeast. The area is 11,677,240 square miles (30,244,050 square kilometers). Sub-Saharan Africa (sometimes called Black Africa)—Region south of the Sahara Desert and used to describe those countries not part of North Africa, the region north of the Sahara. Avoid using Black Africa because it is considered to be politically incorrect or insensitive to some. North Africa—Predominantly Arab or Berber in ethnicity or culture and is mostly associated with the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The sub-Saharan Africa is predominantly black in ethnicity or culture and with few exceptions, such as Mauritius and South Africa, is one of the poorest regions in the world. The exact dividing line between the two regions is not clear. However, according to one classification, sub-Saharan Africa includes 48 nations, 42 of which are on the African mainland. Also, four island nations in the southwest Indian Ocean (Madagascar, The Comoros, Mauritius and Seychelles) and two in the Atlantic (Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe) are considered part of Africa. Central Africa Central African Republic Chad Democratic Republic of the Congo Republic of the Congo Eastern Africa Burundi Comoros Djibouti Eritrea Ethiopia Kenya Seychelles Rwanda Somalia Tanzania Uganda Northern Africa Algeria Ceuta Egypt Libya Melilla Morocco Sudan Tunisia Western Sahara Southern Africa Angola Botswana Lesotho Madagascar Malawi Mauritius Mozambique Namibia Reunion Swaziland South Africa Zambia Zimbabwe Western Africa Benin Burkina Faso Cameroon Cape Verde Cote d'Ivoire Equatorial Guinea Gabon The Gambia Ghana Guinea-Bissau Liberia Mali Niger Nigeria São Tomé and Príncipe Senegal Sierra Leone Togo
  • America
    Refers to the entire Western hemisphere and does not apply solely to the United States. North America and South America together are often referred to as the Americas. When referring to the United States of America, use United States, U.S., U.S.A. or the States.
  • Asia
    About 60 percent of the world’s population, about 4.3 billion people (2015 estimate), live in Asia. Traditionally, East Asia consists of China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and, occasionally, the Philippines. South Asia traditionally consists of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Southeast Asia (which is occasionally combined with East Asia) includes Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In American usage, Asian is generally used to refer to the entire continent of Asia; often, however, Asian is used as shorthand for East Asians, or East and Southeast Asians. British usage generally treats the term Asian as referring to South Asia.
  • Asia, Central
    Caution, vague. It includes Mongolia, but what else the term includes has varied over time. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a German naturalist, helped popularize the term and included large parts of Russia, Iran and Afghanistan.  Others disputed his methodology. A more modern definition would include Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
  • Asian names
    More complex than European names. Clarify family and surname, as well as use of second reference, with the interview subject will help avoid error. When in doubt, ask the news subject, especially on rules for second reference (such as Mr. Mao, but not Mr. Zedong). Asian pronunciation and transliteration rules are also complex. For example, in Mandarin, Chen is pronounced “chuhn” (rhymes with “one”), Li is “lee” and Yang “yong” (rhymes with “song,” not “sang”). However, many second-generation or later Chinese Americans pronounce their names in an Americanized fashion. Consider including pronunciation explainers in the text, broadcast or graphic. See Vietnamese names, Southeast Asian names.
  • Bombay
    See Mumbai.
  • Boricua
    Puerto Rico was formerly known as Borikén, a self-governed island inhabited by the Taino people. The arrival of Spanish settlers during the 16th century decimated the Taino population and many were forced into assimilation. The term Boricua is a derivative of Borikén and connotes pride in Puerto Rican origins.
  • Cantonese
    Not spoken by all Chinese, it is dialect mainly spoken in the environs of Canton, now known as Guangzhou, near the South China Sea. The dialect of many of the early Chinese immigrants to the United States in the 1840s to 1870s. Also the principal dialect of Hong Kong. Still widely spoken in U.S. Chinatowns. See Mandarin.      
  • Central America
    A tropical isthmus that connects North America to South America. Central America is bordered by Mexico to the north, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Central America consists of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.
  • developed countries, developed world
    Terms that describe nations of the world that are considered more economically and technologically advanced. The Central Intelligence Agency's 2013-14 World Factbook lists the following as "developed countries": Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holy See, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States. The terms developed countries and developed world are generally considered to be more current and accurate than First World. In an alternative classification system, the World Health Organization divides countries into four income groups (low, lower-middle, upper-middle and high) based on the World Bank list of analytical income classification of economies.  
  • developing countries, developing world
    Terms that describe nations of the world that are considered less economically and technologically advanced. The Central Intelligence Agency's 2013-14 World Factbook lists the following as "developing countries": Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Aruba, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Burma, Burundi, Cambodia, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Colombia, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Costa Rica, Cote d'Ivoire, Cyprus, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Federated States of Micronesia, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands Antilles, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, Uganda, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe. In addition this category covers the following 46 countries that are traditionally included in the more comprehensive group of "less developed countries": American Samoa, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Brunei, Cayman Islands, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Cook Islands, Cuba, Eritrea, Falkland Islands, French Guiana, French Polynesia, Gaza Strip, Gibraltar, Greenland, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guam, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, North Korea, Macau, Martinique, Mayotte, Montserrat, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Norfolk Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Pitcairn Islands, Puerto Rico, Reunion, Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Tokelau, Tonga, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tuvalu, Virgin Islands, Wallis and Futuna, West Bank, Western Sahara. The terms developing countries and developing world are generally considered to be more current and accurate than Third World. The International Monetary Fund divides the world into two major groups: advanced economies and emerging and developing economies. See the IMF's World Economic Outlook for how it categorizes countries around the world. See developed countries, developed world.
  • diaspora
    Diaspora means “to scatter” in Greek, and the term is commonly used "to describe a community of people who live outside their shared country of origin or ancestry but maintain active connections with it," according to the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance. "A diaspora includes both emigrants and their descendants. While some people lose their attachment to their ancestral homeland, others maintain a strong connection to a place which their ancestors may have left generations ago. Many Americans come from mixed heritage and therefore can claim membership in multiple diaspora communities." The term is commonly used to describe the African diaspora or Black diaspora, the Jewish diaspora (the dispersion of Israelites, Judahites, and later Jews out of their ancestral homeland in the Land of Israel) and the Indian diaspora, the migration of people from India. Diasporas are often linked to an historic event, such as the expulsion of Jews from Judea, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Irish Famine, etc. migrated from territories that are currently within the borders of the Republic of India
  • First World
    Outdated term that refers to the developed, capitalist, industrial countries with more or less common political and economic interests in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia. The term was first coined in the 1940s and was used during the Cold War, with the Second World referring to communist countries of China and the Soviet block. Third World referred to the less developed countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. With the end of the Cold War, globalization and changing geopolitics, the “Three World” model is no longer relevant. Instead, some use developed world countries and developing world countries. See Third World.
  • Hindustan
    This term once referred to a particular empire in northern India, but is sometimes used to refer generally to the Indian subcontinent or the Republic of India.
  • Hispaniola
    The large Caribbean Island where Christopher Columbus made his first settlement. The name means “Isle of Spain.” It contains two countries: The Dominican Republic on the east, where Columbus landed, and Haiti on the west.
  • Hong Kong
    Former British colony. Independent of Britain in 1997 and now one of China’s two “special administrative regions” (the other is Macau). Capitalist after many years of British rule, Hong Kong’s character was preserved by agreement with the British under China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy. There is continuing tension over what that policy means.
  • Indochina
    Caution: Refers to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, but not nearby Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). Some say term has a colonialist connotation.
  • Mandarin
    Caution: important differences from Cantonese. The official language of China and Taiwan, derived from different dialects but not itself a dialect, or regional variety of a language, like Cockney English. The term Mandarin refers to the spoken language. One speaks Mandarin but writes Chinese. While the Cantonese dialect is more prevalent in older American Chinatowns, Mandarin is increasingly spoken in newer Chinatowns. China has one written language using characters understood by anyone who is literate, but many spoken regional dialects such as Shanghainese and Fukienese, which are unintelligible to people from other regions. See Cantonese.          
  • Middle East
    A transcontinental region centered on Western Asia, Southeastern Europe and Northern Africa. According to the Associated Press, the term applies to southwest Asia west of Pakistan and Afghanistan (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the eastern part of Turkey known also as Asia Minor, United Arab Emirates and Yemen), and northeastern Africa (Egypt and Sudan). Mideast is also acceptable, but Middle East is preferred. The corresponding adjective is Middle-Eastern and the derived noun is Middle-Easterner.  
  • Mumbai
    The current term for the Indian city previously known as Bombay. Mumbai comes from the local Marathi language. The renaming of some Indian cities and states began with the end of Imperial British rule in 1947. A 1956 reorganization of states, changes to local languages and differences between Indian and British English caused more and changes continue. Other Indian cities have also formally switched to the names in their native languages, including Kolkata, formerly Calcutta.
  • Myanmar
    Pronounced MEE-YAHN-mar. See Burma.
  • Nollywood
    West Africa’s film industry, based  in Lagos, Nigeria. The term derives from Hollywood and Bollywood, India's center of filmmaking in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay, the source of the B in Bollywood). In a column for The New York Times' Times Insider, Norimitsu Onishi, chief of newspaper's southern Africa bureau, describes how he coined the term: Back in 2002, on a phone call to an editor, I was trying to explain that I’d been working hard, really, during a visit to Lagos, my favorite city in West Africa, the region I was covering at the time. I’d spent a few days hanging out in the district of Surulere, which had emerged as Nigeria’s moviemaking capital. It seemed filmmakers were busy shooting on every street corner, frantically churning out what were then called home videos. Young would-be actresses and actors came from all over the country, wanting to be discovered. Over hot pepper soup and Gulder beer at Winis, a hotel that served as a studio and the site of never-ending parties, producers and directors told me with typical Nigerian ambition and bravado that they were building the new Hollywood. I even flirted with the possibility of playing the role of an evil white man, a bit part in a production called “Love of My Life.” It’s like Hollywood or Bollywood but in Nigeria — Nollywood! I told my editor. A few days later, my article appeared on the front page, under a headline that christened the world’s newest movie powerhouse: “Step Aside, L.A. and Bombay, for Nollywood.” Fourteen years later, Nigeria’s movies have won fans across Africa and the African diaspora worldwide, and they are known to all as ... Nollywood. The term was quickly picked up by filmmakers, scholars and journalists. According to the website for the documentary "This is Nollywood," Nigeria's booming film industry is the world's third largest producer of feature films after Hollywood and Bollywood, but most films there are made on shoestring budgets. The average production there is shot in 10 days for about $15,000.
  • Okies
    A pejorative term for people from Oklahoma dating from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, when thousands of poor people left the state, many heading to California.
  • Palestine
    Historically, Palestine was a country east of the Mediterranean Sea. Today the region includes current-day Israel. As a distinct region, Palestine was under Ottoman control (a Turkish empire) and then British control until 1948, when the nation of Israel was created. Areas of Palestine became Israel and part of Jordan. Today, Palestine refers to the territories under Palestine National Authority control in the West Bank, which remains under Israeli occupation and in the case of the Gaza Strip, contains a variety of Israeli strictures. The United National General Assembly in 2012 upgraded Palestine to a non-voting observer state. Palestinians share a collective national identity and are moving toward independence and self-rule as a country. Negotiations continue between Palestinian authorities and the Israeli government to find a permanent agreement. The Palestinian National Council is the parliament.
  • Puerto Rico
    Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. Spain held Puerto Rico as a colony for more than 400 years and ceded it to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. It has been under U.S. rule as an unincorporated territory ever since. Puerto Ricans were made citizens in 1917, though they had not requested it. In 1952, with Congressional approval, Puerto Ricans voted to become a commonwealth. This did not fundamentally change the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
  • South Asia
    South Asia or Southern Asia is a term used to represent the southern region of the Asian continent. It is bounded on the south by the Indian Ocean and on land by West Asia, Central Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. The terms Indian subcontinent and South Asia are both used to describe the region. South Asia includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  • South Asian
    Term for people who trace their origin to the subcontinent. Preferred to East Indian, which should not be used.
  • South Asian diaspora
    Because of the British colonial legacy and large-scale immigration, there are substantial pockets of people of South Asian heritage outside of South Asia. In some cases — Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago — South Asians make up at least a third of the population. Other countries with large South Asian communities: Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.
  • South Asian names (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and others):
    Names currently used in South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora follow dozens of complex rules and vary by community. As a general rule, it is a good idea to ask an interview subject which name is his or her the first name and which is the surname. One Hindu may follow old caste traditions and have what he considers a first name and a last name, but his biological son may have a different name. Similarly, Sikh and Muslim names can vary by generation. Also, names and orders of names that were used in South Asia often get confused when immigrants arrive in the United States, forcing them to adopt names and spellings more “convenient” for mainstream America. Be careful about generalizing about South Asian names, not all of which are Hindu or Muslim names. There are many South Asian Christians, as well as South Asian Jews, and it may not be obvious from their names that they are South Asian. Moreover, there are some South Asians who have a one-word name.
  • Southeast Asia, Southeastern Asia
    A subregion of Asia that consists of the countries that are geographically south of China, east of India, west of New Guinea and north of Australia. The region lies near the intersection of geological plates, and has heavy seismic and volcanic activity. Southeast Asia consists of two geographic regions: Maritime Southeast Asia, which includes Brunei, Christmas Island, East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore; and Mainland Southeast Asia, also known as Indochina, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam, and West Malaysia.
  • Tagalog
    Pronounced tah-GAH-log. The official language of the Philippines, but also one of scores of local and regional dialects.              
  • Taipeng Revolution
    One of the bloodiest conflicts in world history. A continuing theme in modern Chinese history is the central government’s fear of separatist movements leading to catastrophic violence. Perhaps 20 million or more Chinese died in a long civil war, contemporaneous with the American Civil War, in which fewer than 1 million Americans were killed. It was led by a Chinese national who thought he was Jesus’ younger brother.
  • Third World
    Originally used to distinguish nations that were aligned with neither the West nor with the East during the Cold War. Commonly used to describe underdeveloped countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. These nations and the people there are often cast as being uncivilized or primitive. Avoid using term because of its negative connotations. Better to say developing countries. Use in quotes only if necessary.
  • Tiananmen Square
    The vast public square at the center of Beijing, capital of China. In 1989, as many as a million protesters, led by students, demonstrated in favor of democracy, prompting a lethal crackdown by the Communist government on June 4. Number of deaths still unknown, but totaling at least in the hundreds. The crackdown is a central event in modern Chinese history.
  • Urdu
    One of the official languages of Pakistan; also spoken in many partsof India, especially in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Also the language used in ballads known as ghazals. Urdu is written in a Perso-Arabic alphabet. Persian uses an adapted Arabic script which is further adapted to accommodate Urdu.
  • West Indies
    A group of islands in the Caribbean Sea that includes the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, United States Virgin Islands, the Leeward Islands and Windward Islands, Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago. They acquired that name because Spanish explorers erroneously thought they had sailed to India.