Dear Dr. Boli: How do they define “continents” so that Europe is one and Greenland isn’t? And who are “they”? —Sincerely, a Teacher of Geography at Blandville Intermediate School.

Dear Sir or Madam: The term “continent” refers to one of the great land masses of the earth, but its meaning has been diluted by intense lobbying. If you look at a map of the world, you will plainly see that the land is made up of two continents and a bunch of islands. The lobbyists, however, have had their way in the International Geographical Union; so that, for example, Australia, which is a big island with only one country on it, gets to call itself a continent, because Australia bribed the voting delegates with good Shiraz. North and South America are counted as separate continents because it was the only way to keep the Canadians and the Argentines from beating each other up. Europe, whose supposed border with Asia is a squiggly imaginary line, has more countries per square foot than any other so-called continent, and was therefore easily able to overwhelm the delegates with sheer numbers of lobbyists. On the other hand, the people who live in Greenland are rather sensible Arctic types who have better things to do than argue about abstract concepts like “continent.” India made some attempt at bribing the delegates with chicken tikka masala, but was not able to push its way out of the probationary “subcontinent” stage. Perhaps in the future India will produce some truly excellent Shiraz and become a full continent in its own right.



  1. Colin says:

    This brings up the question of how Antarctica was able to gain membership in the rather exclusive Continent Club. Aside from the extreme implausibility of a conspiratorial penguin lobby, my best guess is that we can blame the British for stuffing the ballot box in an ill-advised attempt to fabricate any possible shred of success out of the rather embarrassing Robert Scott Expedition.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Although the United States does not recognize them, there are multiple “territories” in Antarctica claimed by seven different countries.

      The overlapping claims are enough to create a well-populated continent, for lobbying purposes, even without any Shiraz-growing regions.

      • This situation is why I was surprised to find myself uncharacteristically annoyed with PBS recently, when their Nature program aired an episode titled “Penguin Post Office”, about the Gentoo Penguins who live around, and the humans who work in, a post office the British government maintains at one of their research bases on the Antarctic Peninsula to bolster their territorial claim to that part of Antarctica in defiance of UN treaty banning all such claims. That the US-Government-Owned PBS would speak of the post office as being on British Soil without giving the above context annoyed me, but I suppose the fact that the US Government clearly does not censor PBS for political reasons even when by all standards of rightness they really really should, is in the end a good thing after all.

  2. Ben Ieghn says:

    I credit Australia’s success to its cast-iron constitution, really – as even the best Shiraz has left many other countries with greater mass but lessor constitutions incontinent…

  3. Taking the piss out of us again, I see, but that’s why we need to be more continent.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  4. Europe is Grandfathered in as a continent, from the days when no one was sure whether or not the Black Sea opened out into the Caspian and the World Ocean beyond, and Europe (Greece and the Balkans) and Asia (Anatolia and the Levant) were thought to quite probably be two separate landmasses separated by the narrow straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanalles. The other known large landmass, Africa (Egypt across to Morocco) was separated from Asia by a narrow spit of land at Suez and thus laid the precedent for the future separation of the Americas into two separate continents at Panama.

    By the time geographers were convinced to their satisfaction that the Black Sea really was just a large bay with delusions of grandeur, the cultural differences between the three continents had led to the canalization of the sort of scientific-racist thinking that would, over a millennium later, lead to the Victorians classifying the human species into separate “races” ranked by how far the others fall from the perfection of pasty-faced European whiteness.

    It is thus ironic that these same Victorians would name their own race after the isthmus that separated the Black Sea from the Caspian and thus kept their precious Europe from really being a continent at all, the Caucasus.

  5. markm says:

    Europe, Asia, and Africa were classified from the viewpoint of ancient Greece – and by those names, mostly they meant the Greek/Macedonian mainland, Anatolia, and Egypt. I think most likely that dates back to when Phoenician city-states controlled the sea along the shore of present-day Israel and Lebanon. Greeks that tried to sail along that shore did not return, but their traders did have a chance of making Egypt if they coasted only as far as the tip of Anatolia or Cyprus, then struck out to the south or SSW, staying far out from land. So they did not even know if there _was_ a land connection between Egypt and Anatolia. (And no one who could go by ship would have walked across the Sinai desert anyhow.)

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