Where are all these countries coming from?

The Monitor's language columnist looks at marketers' artful use of the term 'countries' to make it seem as though they're serving more of them.

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Have you noticed how many more countries there are than there used to be?

AT&T Wireless is generating a certain buzz in the blogosophere with its clever "painted hand" ads for its international roaming service. But what caught my eye when I studied one of them the other day was that the company advertises that its service works in "more than 200 countries."

Does the planet even have more than 200 countries? Well, yes, but only if you use a rather broad definition of country.

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Imprecision has its uses, doesn't it? No wonder marketers have pounced on the vagueness of country as if it were pennies from heaven.

Country derives from a Latin expression, terra contrata, the land "opposite" or in front of one. (It's that same "contrary" root as in contradictory, or pros and cons.) It means rural areas, the "way far outer burbs," as in contrast with the city. It can mean a vaguely defined area – "snow country" or "basketball country." One of the simplest definitions, though, is "the territory occupied by a nation," as Onelook.com puts it.

A state is a self-governing political entity – except when it's part of a larger federal system. A nation is a people who share a common culture and language, but not necessarily real estate. Baseball fans joking about "Red Sox Nation" may be more geopolitically correct than they know.

But not all countries are independent, and that's a nuance advertisers exploit. I ran across, for instance, an online vendor of market research reports offering a study that "covers the world outlook for operating system (OS) software across more than 200 countries."

Scotland, for instance, can be referred to as a country that is part of the United Kingdom – or Britain, as it's generally known in the Monitor's pages. But it has no independent foreign policy or armed services; there is no such thing as Scottish citizenship.

The geography guy at About.com, Matt Rosenberg, counts 195 countries on the planet. That's the 192 United Nations members plus Vatican City, plus newly (and controversially) independent Kosovo, plus Taiwan. Taiwan is de facto an independent country, with embassy-like installations abroad, staffed by diplomat-like officials – ambassadroids? But China makes other countries choose between it and Taiwan, and so many of them, including the United States, don't count Taiwan as officially a country.

Rosenberg also has an interesting list of "missing countries." This includes countries that have changed their names, reconnected with their other halves (such as North and South Yemen), or split into two or more pieces.

The "velvet divorce" that dissolved Czechoslovakia 15 years ago left the Czech Republic and Slovakia in its place. It's somehow bothered me over the years not to have a simple stand-alone noun for the Czech Republic, instead of the adjective-plus-noun formulation. It's like having to refer all the time to "the French Republic" instead of just "France."

Then I ran across this in the blog Languagehat.com: "The Czech Republic Country Guide says 'Czechia is the official one-word name of the Czech Republic. In 1993 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic in its memorandum to all Czech embassies and diplomatic missions recommended to use the full name "Czech Republic" only in official documents and titles of official institutions.' "

I'm not sure how well it's catching on. But I'm glad to know it's available.

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