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Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

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Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

Maps are hugely important tools in our everyday life, whether it’s guiding our journeys from point A to B, or shaping our big picture perceptions about geopolitics and the environment.

For many people, the Earth as they know it is heavily informed by the Mercator projection – a tool used for nautical navigation that eventually became the world’s most widely recognized map.

Mercator’s Rise to the Top

With any map projection style, the big challenge lies in depicting a spherical object as a 2D graphic. There are various trade-offs with any map style, and those trade-offs can vary depending on how the map is meant to be used.

In 1569, the great cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, created a revolutionary new map based on a cylindrical projection. The new map was well-suited to nautical navigation since every line on the sphere is a constant course, or loxodrome.

Geographic Inflation

The vast majority of us aren’t using paper maps to chart our course across the ocean anymore, so critics of the Mercator projection argue that the continued use of this style of map gives users a warped sense of the true size of countries – particularly in the case of the African continent.

Mercator’s map inadvertently also pumps up the sizes of Europe and North America. Visually speaking, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s surface, when in reality they occupy a mere 5%.

As the animated gif below – created by Reddit user, neilrkaye – demonstrates, northern nations such as Canada and Russia have been artifiically “pumped up” in the minds of many people around the world.

True size of countries animation Mercator

Greenland, which appears as a massive icy continent in Mercator projection, shrinks way down. The continent of Africa takes a much more prominent position in this new, correctly-scaled map.

Despite inaccurate visual features – or perhaps because of them – the Mercator projection achieved widespread adoption around the world. This includes the classroom, where young minds are first learning about geography and forming opinions on relationships between countries.

Getting Reacquainted with Globes

Google, whose map app is used by approximately 150 million people per month, recently took the bold step of overlaying their map onto a globe. This change sidesteps projection issues completely and displays the world as it actually is: round.

Greenland’s projection is no longer the size of Africa.

– Google Maps team

As people become more accustomed to equal area maps and seeing the Earth in its spherical form, misconceptions about the size of continents may become a thing of the past.

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Maps

Mapped: The Literal Translation of Every Country’s Name

From Colombia to China, explore this map to uncover the diverse histories and cultures represented in the literal translation of each country’s name.

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Mapped: The Literal Translation of Every Country’s Name

View the full-size version of the infographic by clicking here

These days, planes, trains, and automobiles can deliver us to any destination we can name. But how often can we say we know the origins of those names?

Today’s map comes to us courtesy of Credit Card Compare, and it visualizes the literal translations of every country’s name, arranged by continent. Of course, naming conventions are always layered and open to interpretation — especially when they’ve gone through multiple levels of translation — but it’s still an interesting exercise to trace where they are thought to come from.

NA map names

North America

Starting with the Great White North, Canada’s name is derived from the Indigenous Huron people. Kanata means village, or settlement, in the Iroquoian language. Meanwhile, The United States of America was named in honor of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci is credited with correcting Columbus’ error, in which the latter mistook the New World for the East Indies.

Finally, Mexico comes from the simplified Spanish translation for the Aztec capital, Metztlixihtlico, which is said to mean “place at the center of the moon”. The word is a blend of mētztli for ‘moon’, xictli for ‘navel’ or ‘centre’, and the suffix -co for ‘place’.

SA map names

South America

Brazil’s name is actually shortened from Terra do Brasil (land of Brazil). The brazilwood tree, or pau-brasil, was valued highly in the early 16th century. It was used to produce red dyes for the European textile industry — hence the “red like an ember” moniker.

Uruguay has a couple of meanings attached to it, the first being “Bird’s Tail” in reference to the uru, a type of quail that lived by the river. Another association is the uruguä, a species of mussel, for which the country is named “River of Shellfish”. It’s interesting to note the relationship to water and rivers, which is reflected in the similarly-themed naming history across the continent.

Venezuela is named for its resemblance to the Italian city of Venice, thus gaining the title of “Little Venice”. Another area also named after European cities? Colombia, which was originally named “New Granada” in a hat tip to the capital of the Spanish province.

Europe map names

Europe

The “Land of the Franks”, France, gets its namesake from the Latin word francia. This dates back even further to the Old German word franka, meaning brave, or fierce. There’s also a political angle to the name: King Louis V famously proclaimed that “France signifies freedom”.

The exact origin for Germany is unknown, possibly because it was composed of various tribes and states before 1871. It’s known as Deutschland (for “of the people”) in German, Alemania in Spanish, Niemcy in Polish, and Saksa in Finnish. Another theory ties it with the Celtic word ‘gair’ for neighbor.

By the Mediterranean, the boot-shaped country of Italy gets its name from the symbol of the Southern Italic Vitali tribe: the bull. The name is connected to the Latin vitulus for ‘calf’ or ‘sons of the bull’. Another interpretation is the phrase diovi-telia, which translates to “land of the light”.

Asia map names

Asia

China’s English name comes from the Qin dynasty, the first unified and multinational state in Chinese history. Although the dynasty only existed between 221-207 BC, it had a profound and lasting influence on the country. A fascinating tidbit is that China’s name in fact borrows from the Persian language, and even Sanskrit.

India’s name comes from Greek, but also the Sanskrit Síndhu, where both refer to the Indus River. Bharat is another official and historically significant name for the Republic of India, and Hindustan is an alternative name for the region, but its use depends on context and language.

Oceania map names

Oceania

The Land Down Under of Australia is fairly geographical in its name, drawn from the Latin australis for “southern”. The explorer Matthew Flinders popularized the name as we know it in 1804, and “Australia” replaced “New Holland” as the official continent.

The Māori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which is most commonly defined as “the long white cloud” — a reference to early Polynesian navigators discovering the country by relying on cloud formations.

Africa map names

Africa

The name Egypt comes from the Ancient Greek Aiguptos and Latin Ægyptus, and is also derived from hūt-kā-ptah (Temple of the Soul of Ptah). The ancient Egyptian name for the country was km.t (pronounced “kemet”), meaning “black land” likely for the fertile soils of the Nile valley. Today, Egypt’s official name is Jumhūrīyat Miṣr al-ʻArabīyah, or “Arab Republic of Egypt”.

South Africa is aptly named for its geographical location. Interestingly, however, the country has different names in the country’s 11 official languages, including English, Afrikaans, the Venda language, the Tsonga language, and the Nguni and Sotho languages.

What rich histories can be uncovered from your country’s name?

Note: Where some of the country names on the individual maps vary from the translations, please consult the original research document which include the English translations and explanations behind the etymology.

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Demographics

Mapped: The World Divided Into 4 Regions With Equal Populations

This simple map visualization will change how you think about global population, and how people are distributed throughout the planet.

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World Map: Divided Into 4 Regions With Equal Populations

View the full-size version of the infographic by clicking here

At the most basic level, a standard world map tells us almost nothing about human population.

While the borders on a map may give us an idea of political boundaries or even aspects of continental geography, in reality they have little to do with showing population density.

That said, it is possible to apply one simple alteration to the world map so that we can make it more interesting from a population perspective – and it turns out that doing so can help us gain insight on where regional population density is the greatest.

Splitting Up the Map

Today’s map comes from Reddit user /u/OrneryThroat and it breaks up the world by grouping countries into four equally populated regions.

While both simple and crude, this mechanism does have some profound results:

RegionPopulation
North America, South America, and West/Central Africa1.9 billion
Europe, East Africa, Middle East, and Northern Asia1.9 billion
South Asia1.9 billion
Most of Southeast Asia, China, and Oceania1.9 billion

More specifically, there is one area that stands out from a visual standpoint, and it resides clearly in the southern portion of Asia.

Home to 1.34 billion people, it’s well-known that India already holds roughly 20% of the global population – but add Pakistan (195 million) and Bangladesh (165 million) into the mix, and you’re already closing in on one quarter of the global total.

Meanwhile, to get to a similar number, you’d need to add the entire populations of North America, South America, Europe, and Oceania together to even come close.

Shown Another Way

While splitting it into four equal portions is one way to transform the world map, here is another geometric route to conveying a similar idea about the world’s population density:

Circle population

On a previous Chart of the Week, we showed that 22 of the world’s 37 megacities are located in the small circle above, putting into perspective the region’s population density in a similar but different way.

These simple transformations of the world map are not only memorable, but they also give our brain an easy heuristic to better understand the planet we live on.

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