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Where are all these countries coming from?

The Monitor's language columnist looks at marketers' artful use of the term 'countries' to make it seem as though they're serving more of them.

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Have you noticed how many more countries there are than there used to be?

AT&T Wireless is generating a certain buzz in the blogosophere with its clever "painted hand" ads for its international roaming service. But what caught my eye when I studied one of them the other day was that the company advertises that its service works in "more than 200 countries."

Does the planet even have more than 200 countries? Well, yes, but only if you use a rather broad definition of country.

Imprecision has its uses, doesn't it? No wonder marketers have pounced on the vagueness of country as if it were pennies from heaven.

Country derives from a Latin expression, terra contrata, the land "opposite" or in front of one. (It's that same "contrary" root as in contradictory, or pros and cons.) It means rural areas, the "way far outer burbs," as in contrast with the city. It can mean a vaguely defined area – "snow country" or "basketball country." One of the simplest definitions, though, is "the territory occupied by a nation," as Onelook.com puts it.

A state is a self-governing political entity – except when it's part of a larger federal system. A nation is a people who share a common culture and language, but not necessarily real estate. Baseball fans joking about "Red Sox Nation" may be more geopolitically correct than they know.

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