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's the Difference Between a College and a University?

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Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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