How Naming the Continents Works

How Naming the Continents Works: Author's Note

When I learned about the continents in school, the designations seemed so permanent, the land masses such a staple element of geography they were almost on the level of hemispheres. You memorize them. You sing about them. You identify them on tests.

That the continental designations are, in fact, so politically and culturally motivated as to be practically random -- four of the seven recognized in the West don't even meet the definition of "continent" -- was attention-grabbing. Did I even learn that in elementary school? What will my daughter learn in geography class?

I would have loved to include a map from the days before seven (or six or five) named continents, but it turns out it's tough to read them at just 400 pixels wide. If you do a Google search for "historical maps," though, you'll find countless examples. The ones showing routes of exploration are especially worth a look, since many of those explorers had hardly a clue where they'd come ashore.


  • Antarctica. The New York Times. March 13, 1904.
  • Asia -- Continent Facts. 4 Corners Club.
  • Cohen, Jonathan. The Naming of America: Fragments We've Shored Against Ourselves. Stony Brook University.
  • Continents. World Atlas.
  • The Continents. InfoPlease.
  • Etymology of Pangaea. GSA.
  • Mason, Wyatt. I Am America. (And So?). The New York Times.
  • Nantambu, Kwame. PhD. Origin of Terms "Negro" and Afrika.
  • Pangaea. EnchantedLearning. dinosaurs/glossary/Pangaea.shtml
  • The Pangaea Theory. ThinkQuest.
  • Was Australia Named in 1545? National Library of Australia.