What’s The Smallest Country In The World?

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What’s the smallest country in the world?

By area or population?

Both!

Vatican City.

WAS IT REALLY THAT EASY?

No.

The issue is defining what a country is, and some argue that the Vatican doesn’t fulfill that criteria.

The first problem is that it’s not a member of the United Nations. Technically, it’s not even a non-member state—that would be the Holy See, which the United Nations describes as “a nearly 2,000-year-old term that refers to the international sovereignty of the Pope, or leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican City State is the geographic property that ensures that sovereignty.”

But UN membership is not required to be called a “country.” Few would argue that Switzerland wasn’t a country before it joined the UN in 2002, or that Italy only came into existence when it joined in 1955.

One of the most common ways to define a country is by using the Montevideo Convention, which was signed between several North and South American countries in 1933. According to Article One of the Convention: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

Of these, the Vatican has a permanent population of around 1000 people (although, due to the odd way the Vatican is structured, only about half the population actually has Vatican citizenship), a clearly defined territory, a government, and has relations with many other states. As such, it probably is a country.

THAT WASN'T SO HARD ... RIGHT?

There is one group that makes the question a bit more complex: the Sovereign Order of Malta (SOM), also known as the Order of St. John.

Tracing its history to 1048, the Order was officially founded by Papal Bull in 1113 and took control of Malta in 1530. Then they lost Malta in 1798 and found themselves in Rome, where they occupied the Magistral Palace and Magistral Villa in Rome. In 2001 they came to an agreement with the Maltese government to take control of a fort in Malta.

All of this leads some to claim that they are the smallest nation in the world, with an area of at best a couple of buildings and a population generally stated as three people (although approximately 13,500 people are members and an additional 80,000 volunteer). It also has the rarest passport in the world, with only the Grand Master possessing a permanent passport, although 12 people also have temporary passports.

But it’s debated whether it truly can be considered a country. Going back to the UN argument, it has the same classification as entities like the Red Cross and the International Olympic Committee. A recent article in The Spectator argued that the order is essentially a religious order under the auspices of the more internationally recognized Holy See, and as such shouldn’t be considered a separate country.

The Spectator's argument boils down to the lack of a population, the lack of any territory to call its own (compared to the situation where the Holy See owns the Vatican), and a recent controversy surrounding the Order.

Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager was ousted by the order for his part in an alleged scheme to promote condom use in Myanmar. After the firing, von Boeselager appealed to Pope Francis, who appointed a five-member committee to investigate. After some fighting over sovereignty, the Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing (Fra’ is a title in the Order of Malta) was forced to resign and von Boeselager was reinstated.

The Spectator’s point in bringing this up is that “the Order’s claim to be independent has a dubious foundation—the Knights cannot be, for they owe ultimate allegiance to the Pope and the Vatican State. It follows therefore that it is a vassal and not a sovereign state.”

Not everyone agrees with that sentiment, so the Sovereign Order of Malta exists as an asterisk on smallest nation trivia.

WHAT IF I DON'T LIKE EITHER CLAIMANT?

In that case, the smallest country by area is Monaco and the smallest by population is Nauru, both full members of the UN and undeniably countries.

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What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

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Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

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