Good Questions: Relating the history of world geography

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WHY IS the definite article often applied to the names of countries such as Gambia, Lebanon and Yemen? (Roy Goodwill, Belfast).

The Gambia, the Lebanon and, we might add, the Ukraine, were all geographical features before they became names of countries: the Gambia is the river around which the country was built, the Lebanon is a mountain range, and 'the Ukraine' means simply 'the frontier lands'.

Since the Yemen split into two countries, then reunited, there has been a tendency not to use the definite article. The justification for it stemmed from the Arabic name, al-Yemen, meaning 'the right hand'.

Which bit is Herzegovina - and does it make any difference? (G Brace, Topsham, Devon).

It is the southern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina and it hasn't made any difference since around 1463. The ancient inhabitants of both were Illyrians, and they were part of the ancient Roman province of Illyricum.

Bosnia became a separate entity in the middle of the 10th century, before being invaded first by Hungary, then by the Turks. In the 15th century, Herzegovina was ruled by a German duke, or Herzog, which gave it its name.

After the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-88, Bosnia and Herzegovina, still formally separate provinces, were assigned to Austro-Hungary and were formally annexed to the Austro- Hungarian empire in 1908. They were then annexed to Serbia in 1918 as part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and in 1946, Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the six people's republics of Yugoslavia.

The Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats and Serbo-Croat-speaking Muslims have been vying for influence ever since a power-sharing constitution was imposed in 1908, which seems to have left no inclination for rivalry between Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The name Bosnia, incidentally, derives from the river Bosna and is probably of Illyrian origin. So we could now be calling it 'The Bosna', particularly if Illyrian had a definite article.

I am working abroad and am often asked what country I come from. I know the proper answer is 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland', but very few Nepalese understand this. I hope you can clear up the confusion by answering the following: what is the definition of a country?

What was the UK called before Irish independence, and before Scotland joined in? Where do the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands come into it all? Why are England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland separately represented in the World Cup? (Stephen Keeling, Kathmandu).

A country is defined either geographically as a region or politically as a state, so that doesn't help. Currently, Great Britain comprises England, Wales and Scotland, and the United Kingdom is GB and Northern Ireland. Between 1801 and 1922, the official title was 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland'. The British Isles, however, still is a geographical and thoroughly apolitical term which should include Ireland.

The name Great Britain was first officially used in a royal proclamation of 1604, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England and wished to express the fact that he was king of a united island. The name was formally adopted in 1707 by the Act of Union. There is a suggestion that the name of Great Britain was chosen in deliberate contrast to 'Lesser Britain' or 'Little Britain', which was Brittany in France.

Although Wales had effectively been united with England since 1301 (when Edward I created his eldest son Prince of Wales), the formal Acts of Union waited until 1536 and 1543.

There was apparently no official name for the Union of England and Wales before Scotland joined in. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands do not come into it at all. They are not part of the United Kingdom but are Crown Dependencies with their own legislative systems.

Finally, they all get to play in the World Cup because they were all there long before 1904 when FIFA was founded. The first-ever football international was played in Glasgow between England and Scotland in 1872. It ended in a 0-0 draw and there was no penalty shoot-out.