The Reason Long Island Isn't Considered an Island

iStock
iStock

Here’s a deceptive question: Is Long Island an island? It’s surrounded on all sides by water, yet for legal purposes, it isn’t an island. In 1985, all nine justices on the Supreme Court agreed. Long Island, that mass of land completely surrounded by water, is not an island. It’s a peninsula. One that just happens to have a little water between it and the mainland. 

The case in question, United States v. Maine, arose over disputes between states and the federal government over who legally controls the water between the eastern tip of Long Island and Rhode Island (Block Island Sound).

If Long Island were legally an island, that water would be considered the open sea, and therefore be regulated by the federal government. As a peninsula, the water around it (and the soil at the bottom of the sound) comes under the authority of the states surrounding it. 

Image Credit: Google Maps

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s geographically unsound ruling, the island is an extension of the New York mainland, and ships passing through the bay to its north need a state-licensed captain, per New York and Rhode Island law. Here’s the Supreme Court’s logic on why the island is not an island, according to the Long Island-based newspaper Newsday:

The court was led to its conclusion as a result of Long Island's shape and relation to the corresponding coast. According to the ruling, Long Island's north shore follows the south shore of the opposite mainland. But the shapes of the two lands almost completely surround the Long Island Sound.

The court also determined that Long Island and the adjacent shore share a common geological history, which contributes to its lack of island-ness. Deposits of sediment and rocks from the mainland formed the shores by ice sheets that retreated thousands of years ago, according to the ruling.

Technically, the East River, the body of water that separates Long Island from Manhattan and the Bronx (on the New York mainland), is a tidal strait, rather than a river. Since the East River is relatively shallow, difficult for ships to navigate, and not an outlet to the sea, it doesn’t count, the Court essentially argued. Newsday points out that scientific experts don't support this argument—geologically, the two islands are made of very different kinds of rock that formed at millions of years apart. But, as a matter of political expediency, it’s more convenient for Long Island to be a peninsula so New York can exercise jurisdiction over it (and reap whatever natural resources it can from that). 

While it may have simplified interstate squabbles, the demotion to peninsula status did cause Long Island to lose out on its designation as the longest island in the lower 48 states.

Why is North Always Up on Maps?

iStock/Princessdlaf
iStock/Princessdlaf

Geophysicists recently updated the World Magnetic Model—navigational data used for everything from cell phones to satellites—and found that magnetic north, a spot once located in Arctic Canada, is moving quickly toward Siberia. But even this discovery doesn't quite explain why maps always feature north at the top.

There’s nothing inherently upward about north. Some early Egyptian maps put south on top, while in medieval Europe, Christian cartographers tended to give that distinction to east, since you had to turn that way to face Jerusalem. Others placed east on top because of the rising Sun (that’s why we orient ourselves). And early American settlers sometimes used maps with west on top, because that was the direction they were often heading.

If anyone deserves the blame for today’s northward bias, it’s Claudius Ptolemy. In the 2nd century, he wrote the influential Geographia, which featured a “global” map with north on top. No one’s positive why he positioned it that way, but it may be that the Library of Alexandria—where he did his research—simply didn’t have much information on the Southern Hemisphere. During the Renaissance, Ptolemy’s work was revived. By then, the phenomenon of magnetic north had been discovered, making his layout even more appealing to mapmakers.

The magnetic north pole, however, was not located until 1831. On an otherwise disastrous expedition to Arctic, British explorer James Clark Ross discovered the pole—the spot where a compass needle on a horizontal axis points straight down—on the west coast of Canada's Boothia peninsula. "I must leave it to others to imagine the elation of mind with which we found ourselves now at length arrived at this great object of our ambition," Ross recalled. "Nothing now remained for us but to return home and be happy for the rest of our days."

This story was originally published in 2014.

11 Totally Redundant Place Names

The Milky Way galaxy
The Milky Way galaxy
iStock.com/Nick_Pandevonium

East of Lancashire, England lies Pendle Hill, known for its historical association with witch trials, scientific discoveries about air pressure, and religious visions that led to the founding of the Quaker movement. It is also known for having a tautological name. A tautological name has two parts that are redundant, or synonymous. Tautological place names usually come about when more than one language goes into the name. The Pendle in Pendle Hill is derived from Pen-hyll, a combination of the Cumbric word for "hill" and the Old English word for "hill." So Pendle Hill is really "Hill Hill Hill." Here are 11 other redundant place names:

1. Lake Tahoe ("Lake Lake")

This scenic body of water on the Nevada/California border gets its name from a loose pronunciation of dá’aw, a word from the Native American language Washo that means "lake."

2. La Brea Tar Pits ("The Tar Tar Pits")

The animal bones displayed at this California attraction were preserved in la brea, Spanish for the tar.

3. Milky Way Galaxy ("Milky Way Milky")

The general astronomical term galaxy comes from the word the ancient Greeks used to describe the band of light they could see in the night sky, galaxias or "milky."

4. Minnehaha Falls ("Waterfall Falls")

The name for this Minnesota waterfall does not, as the legend has it, mean "laughing water." It comes from the Dakota word for waterfall.

5. Sahara Desert ("Deserts Desert")

The name for this giant expanse of North Africa comes from çaḥrā, the Arabic word for deserts.

6. El Camino Way ("The Way Way")

There's a street in Palo Alto, California called El Camino Way, or "The Way Way." If you drive down it in your Chevy El Camino you will be driving your way down The Way Way in The Way.

7. Avenue Road

The city of Toronto can't claim the foreign language excuse for this tautological street name.

8. Street Road

Nor can this name in Pennsylvania be blamed on foreign language issues.

9. Mississippi River ("Big River River")

Our favorite spelling word is derived from an Ojibwe or Algonquin word for "big river."

10. Faroe Islands ("Sheep Islands Islands")

Faroe comes from the Faroese word Føroyar, literally meaning "sheep islands."

11. East Timor ("East East")

Whether you say East Timor or Timor Leste, it still means "East East." Timor comes from the Indonesian/Malay timur, for "east." One could argue that the name isn't really tautological, however, since Timor is the name for the easternmost island in a chain of islands, and East Timor is the eastern half of that island. So it's a repeated word, but referring to more than one thing.

A version of this list first ran in 2013.

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