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Why do Europe and Asia count as two continents?

Dear Cecil:

Why do Europe and Asia count as separate continents, when any fool with a map can see they're parts of the same landmass? I expect the answer has something to do with the historical fact that ancient people in, say, China and France would have no way of knowing they were on the same continent, but surely this excuse should not stand today. After all, people on the opposite ends of any of the other three continents would have said the same thing, but we don't let them get away with it.

Terry McC., Dallas

Cecil replies:

Cecil replies:

Not to be picky, Terry, but there are five other continents, not three. You’re right about Europe and Asia being parts of one continent, though.

What we have here is a carryover from the ancient Greeks, who used the terms Asia, Europe, and Africa to designate regions rather than continents. (The term continent, in the sense of "a major landmass mostly surrounded by water," originated in 17th-century England.) Nowadays, people in the know refer to Europe as "the western peninsular appendage of the Eurasian landmass," which has the added advantage of sounding like a description of Yul Brynner’s wazoo.

Cecil Adams

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