BITS OF GEOGRAPHY

Thomas Russell Wingate   
January, April 2010
September, October 2012
July, October 2014      

      

      

 

1

 

Bodies of water—here we may use waters (plural) alone—may be still or flowing (moving). Their bottoms are beds: lakebeds, seabeds, riverbeds, streambeds.

 

          The International Seabed Authority is based at Kingston, Jamaica.

 

The high seas are waters outside the jurisdiction of any state. In non-legal reality, such waters are level with all others (“sea level”). Tides are “high” and “low,” but seas are not. (Landlocked seas, such as the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea, may be far above or far below the level of the oceans, but they have levels of their own.)

 

The high frontier refers to places, natural or artificial, populated or intended to be populated, above Earth’s atmosphere.

 

          The International Space Station is the doorsill to the high frontier.

 

2


Oceans, seas, and lakes are bounded by shores—obviously, land. We also use coast and related compounds (seacoast, seaboard, seashore, lakeshore, lakeside, riverside).

The town is an hour’s walk from the coast.

Offshore drilling platforms in the North Sea are vital to Norway’s future.


3


Rivers and streams flow between banks.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon


When you face downstream, the right bank is on your right hand.

The Latin Quarter is on the left bank of the Seine.

Iowa is on the right bank of the Mississippi River and the left bank of the Missouri River.


Since rivers almost never flow in straight lines, terms like “east bank” should be avoided. Besides, rivers (like people) have been known to change beds.

4


Lakes, rivers, and counties are inconsistently named.

Lake VictoriaAfrica
Lake ErieU.S. / Canada
Lake TahoeCalifornia / Nevada
Seneca LakeNew York
Oxford LakeManitoba
Lake WinnipegManitoba
Clear LakeCalifornia
Utah LakeUtah
Lake BonnevilleUtah (prehistoric)
  
River ThamesEngland
Hudson RiverNew York
River SeineFrance
Volga RiverRussia
River JordanBible
Jordan RiverUtah
  
EssexEngland
Essex CountyMassachusetts
Uinta CountyWyoming
Uintah CountyUtah
Utah CountyUtah
Nevada CountyCalifornia
Acadia ParishLouisiana
Les Moulins County        Quebec
County CorkIreland
Cook CountyIllinois


In the United States and Canada, the name precedes “county.” In Ireland, vice versa.

In England, the University of Oxford can be called Oxford University, but the County of Oxford is never called Oxford County.

Many British counties take the suffix shire. The word by itself rhymes with “fire.” As a suffix in England and New England, it rhymes with “fear” or “fur”; in Scotland, it rhymes with “fire.”

County of Hants = Hampshire
County of Salop = Shropshire


One reads of Wiltshire and Devonshire; one never reads of Cornwallshire.

London is not the City of London. The former is the metropolis of thirty-two boroughs surrounding the City of London. The latter, known for short as “the City” or “the Square Mile,” is a financial center. The Lord Mayor of the City of London is not the Mayor of London. Greater London (the metropolis) is considered a county; the City of London is a separate “ceremonial” county.

Of the five boroughs of the City of New York, three have extra names (as counties of the State of New York).

San Francisco, which has never been a political capital, insists upon calling itself “the City” to mark its financial and cultural supremacy (despite much erosion) and its superb natural setting. It is California’s only City and County.

The City and County of Denver is the capital of the State of Colorado.

The City and County of Honolulu, which includes the entire island of Oahu, is the capital of the State of Hawaii. The Island of Hawaii (“the Big Island”) is Hawaii County.

Remember that counties need not be small. Nye County, Nevada, is larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware combined.

In Alaska, the Unorganized Borough is larger than Texas.

5


Two Latin prefixes are helpful: cis (“on this side”) and trans (“on the other side”).

The Alps run west-to-east. What is north of the Alps (e.g., Germany) is transalpine Europe. What is south of the Alps (e.g., Italy) is cisalpine Europe. Here we are reckoning from Rome.

The Caucasus Mountains also run west-to-east. What is north of the Caucasus is Ciscaucasia. What is south of the Caucasus is Transcaucasia. Here we are reckoning from Russia, not from Armenia.

The Mississippi River runs north-to-south. Transmississippi means the river’s right bank and the western lands beyond. Here we are reckoning from the original United States.¹

6


Modern maps almost always put north at the top.

This need not be so and was not so in other centuries. Dutch maps placed west at the top. Chinese maps placed south at the top. Medieval maps placed east at the top.

7


Confusion arises when we think of north as up.

He sailed his yacht up the coast from Charleston to Boston.


No: the yacht was at sea level throughout her voyage. “Along the coast” would be better.

8


Lower Egypt is to the north of Upper Egypt. This is because the Nile flows—how else?—downstream and not because the Nile flows northward (like the Yenisei in Siberia).

The tourists went down the Nile from the Pyramids to Luxor.

Please: when you are writing, be more thoughtful than that.

Montreal is farther north than Toronto. That is not why the French-speaking city was said in British colonial times to be in Lower Canada, while the city on Lake Ontario was said to be in Upper Canada. Look at the St. Lawrence River, the world’s avenue to populated Canada. The terms came from maritime experience and common sense. It would not matter if the maps were Dutch or Chinese or medieval.

Lower and Upper do not equate to directions—but we must explain the case of California. The Spanish arrived by ship in the southern peninsula (Baja California) first, and then later to the more hospitable mainland (Alta California). Coastal elevations do not differ impressively. In 1848 the United States formally acquired what it chose to call California. (The Romans would have called these lands Nearer and Further California, as they did with Mediterranean Spain.) In Mexico, the older usage endures; the Gulf of California is entirely Mexican.

The highest mountains in Iberia are “the snowy mountains” or “the snowcapped range” in Andalusia. The highest mountains in Alta California were honored by the same name: Sierra Nevada.

Michigan’s two peninsulas are another exception. If Wisconsin extended to Canada, no one would speak of Upper Wisconsin. Montana, despite the Spanish name, is flat in the east, but we do not speak of Lower Montana.

The Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland are exactly that.

9


We read in Isaiah 11:12 and elsewhere of “the four corners of the earth.” This expression may mean (a) the four cardinal directions, or (b) the sunrise/sunset points of the summer and winter solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, or (c) expansively speaking, everywhere.

A sloppy writer mentioned “the four corners of the globe.” I will gladly pay fifty dollars to anyone who can show me a globe with corners.

10


On north-topped maps, you will find west on the left and east on the right.

On star maps, east and west are reversed. This is because they show what is overhead, which is exactly where you are not.

Ground maps surreptitiously assume that you are above the lands and waters they represent.

You cannot fully understand anything until you know what it secretly presumes.

11


Geographers, geologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, and historians seeking objectivity might be grateful for ready alternatives to names in contested and irrelevant use for lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the north-south alignment Sea of Galilee–River Jordan–Dead Sea– Wadi Arabah.²

Cisjordania³ (reckoning from the coast) is larger than Sicily, smaller than Maryland.

We may neutrally apply the Latin prefix ambi (“both”) to lands bisected by these depressed segments of the Great Rift.

More Neanderthal campsites have been discovered in Ambijordania.

 

                   12

 

The Strait (singular) of Magellan is far to the north of Cape Horn. Vessels use the strait to avoid the storms of the alarmingly open ocean north of Antarctica. Cape Horn (“the Horn”) is the southernmost headland of a tiny, inaccessible, treeless, unpopulated island of legendary but no practical importance, Horn Island, where the Chilean Navy maintains a lighthouse. By convention, Cape Horn, long thought to be attached to Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, is the extremity of South America.

 

The Cape of Good Hope (“the Cape”) is not the extremity of Africa. That distinction is reserved for Cape Agulhas. The Cape of Good Hope is a peninsula ending in Cape Point; by convention, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are separated at Cape Point.

 

                   13

 

Two mountain-piercing railroads joined in Box Elder County, Utah, in 1869.  The Union Pacific started westward from Omaha in 1865; the Central Pacific started eastward from Sacramento in 1863. They met with much ceremony at Promontory Summit north of the Great Salt Lake. The Promontory Mountains jut southward into the lake; the peninsula’s extremity is called Promontory Point. Golden Spike National Historic Site is north of the peninsula.

 

A smoother Atlantic–Pacific rail connection between New Orleans and San Diego had been intended. In 1853 southern Arizona was purchased from Mexico to advance it. Before anything much could be done, our hugest war took precedence. The precious metals of Nevada and California were urgently needed for victory. Cargo sent over both oceans took too long.                                                                                                                                                                

Money and manpower were scarce; the Union Pacific started only after the war was over. Public domain lands equal in size to Colorado capitalized the national endeavor.

 

                   14

 

One hundred years after two locomotives touched cowcatchers at Promontory Summit for still photographs, two Americans walked on the Sea of Tranquility for live television shown (eventually) all over the Blue Planet.

 

                   15

 

The dinosaurs never saw the lunar farside. Think that over.

 

In 1959 and 1965 Soviet space probes photographed it. In 1968 orbiting Americans saw it. As yet, no one’s foot has been set there.

 

Russian names—Mendeleev, Gagarin, Tsiolkovsky—are affixed to farside craters. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, esteemed by Russians, received the same honor.

 

The Sea of Muscovy is the only one named for a country.  

 

My favorite lunar feature is the Sea of Ingenuity. Too bad I’ll never see it.

 

                   16

 

In modern English a few countries are poetically known by other names.

 

          China                                       Cathay

          Thailand                                   Siam

          Russia                                      Muscovy / Rus

          India (sometimes maximum)      Hindustan / Hind / Ind

          Iran                                          Persia

          France                                      Gaul

          England                                    Albion / Britannia

          Scotland                                   Scotia / Caledonia

          Wales                                       Cambria

          Ireland                                      Hibernia

          U.S.A.                                      Columbia

                   Southern states                         Dixie

                   States east of New York            New England

 

                   17

 

Araby, the domain of the Arabs, extends from Morocco to Oman. Arabia is the world’s largest peninsula; most of it is in the Saudi kingdom, the ceremonial (but not the demographic) center of the Islamic world.

 

Egypt is the most populous Arab country. Indonesia is the most populous Islamic country.

 

The Middle East, where clamor knows no bounds, is understood to include Turkey, Iran, and Israel, which stress their ancientries and look down upon Arabs.   

  

18

 

The New World city closest to Jerusalem in latitude, elevation, and climate is Tucson, Arizona.

  

                   19

 

Wikipedia has an excellent article “Names of Istanbul.” Everyone whose writing (or reading) touches the City should factor this in.

 

San Francisco, younger by far, is also the City.

 

20     

 

Istanbul’s harbor has been called the Golden Horn (Greek Chrysoceros) since antiquity.

 

In the nineteenth century Russia built a city, Vladivostok (“Lord of the East”), on the Pacific. Its harbor was named the Golden Horn.

 

Earlier in the nineteenth century, an American explorer in Mexico’s Alta California was struck by the beauty of a strait wider than the Bosporus. John C. Frémont called it the Golden Gate (Chrysopylae). The unforeseen Gold Rush made the new name fit.

 

The old name, suitable for harbors on the coasts of England and New England, was La Boca del Puerto (“The Mouth of the Port”) de San Francisco. Seven words in Spanish gave way, not to one in English, but to two in English translated from one in Greek.

 

Everyone knows that the Golden Gate and the two Golden Horns differ widely in longitude. Be the first of your acquaintance to notice that they do not differ greatly in latitude.  

 

 

 

NOTES

 

 

1 Cismississippi would be logical, but I have not seen it used. The “Father

   of Waters” was the new republic’s border for twenty years.

2 Transjordan was in official use from 1921 to 1949. Before then, the

   Jordan-Arabah line had never been a state frontier.

3 French writers avoid the awkward and recent term “West Bank” by

   using Cisjordanie. My proposed meaning is broader.


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