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A country is a region legally identified as a distinct entity in political geography. A country may be an independent sovereign state or one that is occupied by another state, as a non-sovereign or formerly sovereign political division, or a geographic region associated with sets of previously independent or differently associated peoples 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 resident of a country is subject to the independent exercise of legal jurisdiction.
Sometimes the word country 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 has developed from the Late Latin contra meaning "against", used in the sense of "that which lies against, or opposite to, the view", i.e. the landscape spread out to the view. From this came the Late Latin term contrata, which became the modern Italian contrada, and Provençal and French equivalents. In many ways this defined the agonistic world view of the early Christian identity in Europe. Several different senses of the term developed in Middle English from the 13th century, all reflecting a sense of either opposition, or occupation.
In English the word has increasingly become associated with political divisions, so that one sense, associated with the indefinite article – "a country" – 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 Länder, 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 unities, like the Pays de la Loire. At the same time the United States and Brazil are also "pays" in everyday French speech.
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 regions and unities, 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 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 total states, with 193 states participating in the United Nations, two observer states and 11 other states (if the Cook Islands and Niue are included, but there are only a few states have recognised them as sovereign). All are defined as states by declarative theory of statehood and constitutive theory of statehood. The latest proclaimed state is South Sudan.
Although not sovereign states, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are referred to as separate countries, even though collectively they form the country known as the United Kingdom. The degree of autonomy of non-sovereign countries varies widely. Some are possessions of sovereign states, as several states have overseas dependencies (such as the British Virgin Islands (United Kingdom) and Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)), with citizenry at times identical and at times distinct from their own. Such dependent territories are sometimes listed together with sovereign states on lists of countries, and may be treated as a "country of origin" in international trade, as Hong Kong is.
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