Skip to navigationSkip to content

42 easily confused English terms that make global travelers look ridiculous

Reuters/Jose Manuel Ribeiro
Time for a refresher.
  • Jake Flanagin
By Jake Flanagin


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Geography is hard. Even for those of us who grew up eating every meal over a Rand McNally world map placemat, there are a lot of terms to remember. And confuse. Often, it seems people may not be aware they are using a specific term incorrectly—hence the overwhelmingly positive reception to Terry Blas’s recent illustration explaining the difference between “Hispanic” and “Latino.”

As such, Quartz has compiled this handy dictionary of commonly misused and mixed-up geographical terms. Never get caught confusing “Guyana” and “Guinea” again!

Hispanic vs. Latino

“Hispanic” refers to anyone with ancestors originating in a Spanish-speaking country. This includes Spain, despite the fact that it’s in Europe, and even the tiny African nation of Equatorial Guinea. “Latino” refers to anyone with ancestors originating in Latin America or the Caribbean—this includes non-Spanish speaking countries like Brazil and Barbados.

England vs. Great Britain vs. The United Kingdom vs. The British Isles

England is a constituent country of the United Kingdom, homeland of the English language and seat of the Anglican Church. Great Britain refers to the island on which England, Scotland, and Wales are situated. The United Kingdom is the political entity, ruled by Queen Elizabeth II, which includes Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and various overseas territories. The British Isles are the set of North Atlantic islands that include Ireland, Great Britain, and the Isle of Man.

Persian vs. Iranian

“Persian” refers to the majority-ethnicity of Iran. It is an also an anglicization of “Farsi,” the official language of the Islamic Republic. “Iranian” is a nationality, assigned to anyone who is a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or descended from such individuals. This includes ethnic Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Balochis, Arabs, and Turkmen.

Chinese vs. Mandarin

Mandarin is the most-spoken language in the People’s Republic of China. “Chinese” is an ethnic umbrella-term, which includes the Han, Zhuang, Hui, and Manchu; but also a broader nationalistic term, referring to anyone with citizenship granted by the People’s Republic of China. It can also refer to a citizen of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan.

Arab vs. Arabic vs. Arabian

“Arab” refers to an ethnic group that forms the majority in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Arabic is the language spoken by many ethnic Arabs, and in member states of the Arab League. “Arabian” generally refers to items or plant/animal species originating on the Arabian Peninsula—considered the historical homeland of ethnic Arabs.

The Midwest vs. The Great Plains

The Midwest is a broad region in the US that runs across the north-central region of the country: North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The Great Plains is a sub-region within the Midwest that also stretches up into Canada, and includes some non-Midwestern states like Montana, Wyoming, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, and northern Texas. It is a climatic/geological, as opposed to regional, toponym, referring to a shared stretch of plains abutting the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.

American Indians vs. Native Americans vs. First Nations

“American Indian” is a term of self-designation often favored by older indigenous Americans. Younger generations are increasingly adopting “indigenous American” as a preferred term. “Native American” is the politically correct (and governmentally favored) term in the United States, which does not include Alaska’s native Inuit and Aleut peoples, who are culturally and linguistically distinct. “First Nations” is used in Canada to refer to indigenous groups who are not Inuit or Métis (a person of mixed European and indigenous ancestry).

The Netherlands vs. Holland

The Kingdom of the Netherlands consists of 12 provinces, two of which, North and South Holland, together comprise the historical region of “Holland.” It rose to prominence under the Holy Roman Empire and subsequent Dutch Republic, with the name retaining that representative cachet over the centuries.

America vs. The United States

This one is obvious—we hope. America refers to the New World in its entirety—from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Though “American” is a popular euphemism for citizens of the United States, “US citizen” is technically correct.

South Asia vs. Southeast Asia

South Asia is a sub-continental region that includes Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and the island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Southeast Asia is further east, consisting of Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, East Timor, and Brunei.

The South Pacific vs. Polynesia

The South Pacific refers to, quite literally, the southern half of the Pacific Ocean. “Polynesia” refers to a group of islands in the South Pacific inhabited by Polynesian peoples—such as Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa, and Easter Island. Micronesia and Melanesia are similar sub-regions of the South Pacific, though they are generally inhabited by Micronesian and Melanesian groups, respectively.

Guyana vs. Guiana vs. The Guianas (vs. The Guineas)

Guyana is an English-speaking, former British colony in South America, sandwiched between Dutch-speaking Suriname and Spanish-speaking Venezuela. Guiana, or more properly, “French Guiana,” is an overseas départment of the French Republic, east of Suriname and north of Brazil, along the Atlantic coast. “The Guianas” was a historical moniker for Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana—the only regions of South America not colonized by the Spanish or the Portuguese. The Guineas are two countries located on the other side of the Atlantic, in West Africa. Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony located just south of Senegal. Guinea-Guinea is a former French colony, located between Sierra Leone and the aforementioned Guinea-Bissau. Papua New Guinea is all the way on the other side of the globe, on an island north of Australia and east of the Indonesian province of West Papua. A lower-case guinea is an old-timey British gold coin, and a guinea fowl is chicken-ish thing the originated around African Guinea; and though the guinea pig is from South America, which, at one point, used to cost one guinea coin. (Exhale.)

Syrian vs. Syriac

“Syrian” refers to anyone from the modern state of Syria. “Syriac” is a language spoken by groups from Iraq and the Levant known as Assyrians, Arameans, or Chaldeans, who are descended from ancient Mesopotamian peoples. Most Syrians are ethnic Arabs, though some may be Kurdish or Armenian, and most Syrians do not speak Syriac.

The Baltics vs. The Balkans

Yes, both regions are in Europe, but “the Baltics” refers to three countries bordering the Baltic Sea—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—which are sandwiched between the Russian Federation and Central Europe. “The Balkans” refers to an area of southern Europe including former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Greece, and the Turkish region of East Thrace.

The Middle East vs. MENA vs. The Arab World

The Middle East is a region that includes Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, and Egypt. The MENA designation (Middle East and North Africa) adds Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Sudan into the mix. MENA typically excludes Turkey as well. Afghanistan and Pakistan, though frequently thought to be in the Middle East due to their Muslim-majority populations, are both in South Asia. And, to this day, no one is entirely sure where the countries of the Caucasus fit in. “The Arab world” is generally used to refer to member states of the Arab League.

Nordic vs. Norwegian vs. Norse

“Nordic” is an adjective that can refer to peoples, languages, and/or cultures of greater Scandinavia: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland. “Norwegian” refers to the people and language of Norway. “Norse” refers to the Norsemen, the pre-Christian peoples of Scandinavia (i.e., the Vikings).

Asian vs. Asiatic

“Asian” may be used to describe countries, ethnicities, or languages originating on the Asian continent. Asiatic, though similar in meaning, is not a term reserved for human subjects. “Asiatic person”? No. “Asiatic cholera”? “Asiatic lions”? Sure.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.