From A to Zywiec for pounds 500

HAS ANY reader been to Nandasmo (southwest Nicaragua, population 2,000)? Or Kyzyl-Kyya (Kygyzstan, population 35,000)? Or perhaps Tixkokob (Mexico, population 8,459)?

Neither have I. But I have just been reading about them in the brand new edition of The Columbia Gazetteer of the World. This 3,500-page work, up-dated for the first time in over 45 years, is the ultimate A-Z, a guidebook to the entire world: a listing of all world place names with accompanying details.

All? Well not quite. Middleton Stoney isn't there for example, and that's a place which I know exists because I used to live there - it's a village in Oxfordshire with a park, a pub and a population of at least a hundred. I'm equally worried about Kalulushi in Zambia. Never heard of it? A colleague of mine says it has a golf club, a tennis club and grand houses with lawns and gardeners. But according to the Gazetteer, there is no such place. In fact the qualification for inclusion in the case of most world towns seems to be a population of around a thousand, though this varies from country to country.

When it comes to America in fact, places as small as Moneta, Iowa (population 29) and Larson, North Dakota (population 26) manage to squeeze their way into these pages. The smallest Chinese towns, on the other hand, seem to need a couple of hundred thousand inhabitants to merit inclusion. But the fact that the USA has over 40,000 entries in this book while China has fewer than 4,000 (and that "the United States of America" covers six pages while "Asia" covers only one) is an understandable reflection of the fact that it was the Americans who went to the trouble of researching the thing.

And everywhere is represented to some extent. Ruined Afghanistan notches 343 entries; even tiny Luxembourg has 189. In some cases, non-existent countries get a mention: Atlantis, for example, appears as the "concept of a lost world of a mighty island power with an exemplary civilisation". Incidentally, there are two real places in the world called Atlantis, including one in Florida, curiously described as a "heavily guarded community, fenced off from surrounding municipalities".

Nor are we confined to towns and countries (or provinces, districts and neighbourhoods). The introduction informs us that it also aims to provide the names of "oceans, seas, gulfs, lakes, lagoons, rivers, bays, inlets, channels, streams, islands, archipelagoes, peninsulas...". We even get Disneyland Paris.

From beginning to end - from A in Norway to Zywiec in Poland - I like to think of this gazetteer as a tidy distillation of all human wisdom. Place names are among the very oldest of human words. Ur of the Chaldees, which receives quite detailed treatment on page 3,283, is identified in the Bible as the home of Abraham and is at least 5,000 years old. And take a look at a couple of familiar British examples: Leicester, originally Ligora Castrum, seems to derive from its Ligurian founders of the 12th century BC; and good old Kent, which comes from the Celtic word Canto (meaning "rim" or "coastal district") was mentioned by Pytheas of Massilia in 308BC.

Meanwhile, every British town is listed alongside a procession of colonial namesakes. To take a random example, the English Oxford appears alongside no fewer than ten North American Oxfords, an Oxford Dam, an Oxford Lake, an Oxford Junction and a Mount Oxford.

In three heavy volumes, this is not a book that I plan to carry around the world on my travels. But with this much information at my disposal, I wonder if I will ever need to travel again?

'The Columbia Gazetteer of the World' is published by Columbia University Press, price pounds 500.

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