December 13, 2007

#01-049: The Continents - Part II: The Seven Continents

map of the world with seven continents labeled
The seven continents, as usually taught in English-speaking North America

Note: In discussing the continents, we're actually leaving out the homelands of millions of people! Three of the world's largest countries--Indonesia (#4), Japan (#10), and the Philippines (#13)--are located entirely on archipelagos, meaning strings of islands, with no presence on any of the continents (though all are located near Asia). Together they add up to nearly 510 million people, making up nearly 6.5% of the world's population!

Get Ready: What continent do you live on (or near)? Do you know the origin of its name?

Having considered some facts about Earth's continents, let's look at their names.

  1. Africa: The name comes into English from Latin. The Romans had colonies on the north coast of the African continent (along the Mediterranean) and came into contact with groups of people in modern-day Tunisia called "the Afri." The Romans named their colony "Africa" after these people, and the name is now applied to the entire continent of over 30.2 million square kilometers.

  2. Antarctica: The ant- here means "opposite" or "against," as in such words as antibiotic and antisocial. So Antarctic is the opposite of the Arctic, the area around the North Pole. And this, you may be surprised to learn, comes ultimately from the Greek word arktos, meaning "bear"! All around the globe, the bear is more common in far northern latitudes, and so the Arctic is his area. By the way, the English name Arthur (as in the great legendary king) comes from this word as well.

  3. Asia: This name was first used in this form by the Greeks nearly 2500 years ago; they may have borrowed it from a Middle Eastern language. Most agree that it refers to the rising of the sun, which of course happens in the East. But others say it may have come from a word that meant "good."

  4. Australia: This one's easier: only a few hundred years old, it comes from the Latin term Terra Australis, meaning "Land of the South." It is the only case where a country and a continent have the same proper name. (Most continents contain more than one country; Antarctica contains none.)

  5. Europe: We are often told that Europe was named after Europa, a mythological princess abducted by the god Zeus. But what was she named after? The word may have meant "broad face," a synonym for "earth." Many ancient cultures call their area simply "the land" or "the earth." But other scholars believe "Europe" may have come from a word that referred to the West, where the sun sets, much as Asia refers to the East, where the sun rises.

  6. North America and g. South America: No mythological princesses here. Most agree that these two large landmasses were named for Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer and mapmaker. Christopher Columbus mistakenly believed that he had reached the Eastern portion of Asia. We still call the Caribbean Islands where he landed "the West Indies," and many still call Native Americans "Indians." Vespucci was among the first to suggest that, no, this was a land entirely unknown to Europe before Columbus sailed.

So there you have it: a mixed bag of origins for the names of the largest landforms on Earth.


Read more:

Practice: On which continent can you find these? Use the letters a-g above to answer.

  1. the world's largest tropical rain forest
  2. more penguins than people
  3. Mexico
  4. the most languages spoken
  5. four of the world's six smallest countries
  6. the world's longest river
  7. the largest number of native English speakers
  8. the smallest land area of any continent
  9. the country with the world's largest population
  10. the most countries

Answers with explanations are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 13, 2007

This lesson received 513 visits on my old site between December, 2011, and June, 2021.

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice:
    1. [g] South America (the Amazon basin)
    2. [b] Antarctica
    3. [f] North America (in Latin America, but not South America)
    4. [c] Asia (over 2,300 languages)
    5. [e] Europe (#1 Vatican City, #2 Monaco, #5 San Marino, #6 Liechtenstein. The other two are #3 Nauru and #4 Tuvalu, both Pacific island countries)
    6. [a] Africa (the Nile, though some say the Amazon in South America is longer)
    7. [f] North America (231 million people)
    8. [d] Australia (5.9% of the world's landmass; Europe has 6.8% and Antarctica 9.2%)
    9. [c] Asia (China)
    10. [a] Africa (54 countries)