How Many Continents? How Many Countries?

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What do the Olympic rings represent? “Well it’s definitely not (b),” I said with confidence, “’the five inhabited continents’”. But it was. Hang on, though…. Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia, North America, South America: six. Then Antarctica: seven.

But that is only one view. The Olympic Committee treats the Americas as one, making six continents in all. Others think it silly to treat Europe and Asia as separate (five countries straddle the two, after all) and speak instead of “Eurasia”. Yet others follow the logic a little bit further and merge Africa, Europe and Asia as “Afro-Eurasia”.

So the world is divided into four, five, six or seven continents, and three, four or five of them are inhabited. But how many countries? A quick Google search will tell you that there are 190, 191, 192, 193, 194 195, 196, 201, 204, 206, 209 or possibly 321.

Man visits every country in record time” reported the British Daily Mail on 25 November 2009 and told the story of Kashi Samaddar’s journey to 194 countries in six years and ten months.

But, almost exactly three years later, the same newspaper reported “British man becomes first person to visit all 201 countries WITHOUT using a plane”.

Then just under a year after that, it reported “British traveller, 24, spends £125,000 and five years visiting every country on earth” and this time counted 196.

The US Travelers’ Century Club identifies 321 territories but acknowledges that “some are not actually countries in their own right”. There are 209 FIFA countries, 204 Olympic nations, but only 193 UN Members (190 of whose sovereignty is not in dispute). The US State Department recognises 195 independent states, but this includes the Holy See – which it is hard to think of as a country – and excludes Taiwan – which it is hard not to.

The right answer in the pub quiz is probably 196, the State Department’s list plus Taiwan; but that could change in just over ten days when Scotland votes on independence. And in any case, 134 UN Members also recognise Palestine, 108 recognise Kosovo and 84 have at one point recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic of Western Sahara. A handful of others have limited recognition.

So pick any number between 190 and 209.

(c) Richard Senior 2014 

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