A country is a region that is identified as a distinct national entity in political geography. A country may be an independent sovereign state or one that is occupied by another state, as a sovereign political division, or a geographic region associated with sets of previously independent or differently associated people with distinct political characteristics. Regardless of the physical geography, in the modern internationally accepted legal definition as defined by the League of Nations in 1937 and reaffirmed by the United Nations in 1945, a
Sometimes the word countries is used to refer both to sovereign states and to other political entities, while other times it refers only to states. For example, the CIA World Factbook uses the word in its "Country name" field to refer to "a wide variety of dependencies, areas of special sovereignty, uninhabited islands, and other entities in addition to the traditional countries or independent states".[Note 1]
The word country comes from Old French contrée, itself derived from Vulgar Latin (terra) contrata (“(land) lying opposite; (land) spread before”), derived from contra (“against, opposite”). It most likely entered the English language after the Franco-Norman invasion during the 11th century.
In English the word has increasingly become associated with political divisions, so that one sense, associated with the indefinite article – "a country" – through misuse and subsequent conflation is now a synonym for state, or a former sovereign state, in the sense of sovereign territory or "district, native land". Areas much smaller than a political state may be called by names such as the West Country in England, the Black Country (a heavily industrialized part of England), "Constable Country" (a part of East Anglia painted by John Constable), the "big country" (used in various contexts of the American West), "coal country" (used of parts of the US and elsewhere) and many other terms.
The equivalent terms in French and other Romance languages (pays and variants) have not carried the process of being identified with political sovereign states as far as the English "country", instead derived from, pagus, which designated the territory controlled by a medieval count, a title originally granted by the Roman Church. In many European countries the words are used for sub-divisions of the national territory, as in the German Bundesländer, as well as a less formal term for a sovereign state. France has very many "pays" that are officially recognised at some level, and are either natural regions, like the Pays de Bray, or reflect old political or economic entities, like the Pays de la Loire.
A version of "country" can be found in the modern French language as contrée, based on the word cuntrée in Old French, that is used similarly to the word "pays" to define non-state regions, but can also be used to describe a political state in some particular cases. The modern Italian contrada is a word with its meaning varying locally, but usually meaning a ward or similar small division of a town, or a village or hamlet in the countryside.
The term "country" is frequently used to refer to sovereign states. There is no universal agreement on the number of "countries" in the world, since a number of states have disputed sovereignty status. There are 206 sovereign states, of which 193 states are members of the United Nations, two states have observer status at the U.N. (the Holy See and Palestine), and 11 other states are neither a member or observer at the U.N. All are defined as states by declarative theory of statehood and constitutive theory of statehood. The latest proclaimed state is South Sudan in 2011.
Although not sovereign states, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are referred to as countries, which collectively form the United Kingdom—a sovereign state which is also referred to as a country. The Kingdom of Denmark, a sovereign state, comprises three nominally separate countries—Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland—each being internally self-governing. The degree of autonomy of non-sovereign countries varies widely. Some are possessions of sovereign states, as several states have overseas territories (such as French Polynesia or the British Virgin Islands), with citizenry at times identical and at times distinct from their own. Such territories, with the exception of those which form distinct dependent territories, are usually listed together with sovereign states on lists of countries, but may nonetheless be treated as a separate "country of origin" in international trade, as Hong Kong is.