Is Australia a Continent?

YT comment

This brought up an interesting geography discussion on CPG Grey’s YouTube video.

Indeed, what are continents? What this thread elicited were statements on what is conventional in someone’s country. For instance in North America we are taught there are seven continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. It seems the Aussies, however, are taught Australia and surrounding islands like New Guinea and New Zealand as Oceania.

Wow, talk about contradicting the definition of a continent.

But that brings up a different question. The video asks, “What is a continent?” and addresses things purely from a physical perspective: a continent is a large, continuous land mass.

Oxford Dictionary

By this we can speculate so much: can we consider Europe and Asia as one continent? The Americas are connected, so can they be one? Antarctica is an archipelago buried under ice so how can that be a continent? Africa is connected to Asia, so are they the Afroeurasia supercontinent? Is Australia an island? Is Greenland a continent? How large does a land mass need to be to be labeled a “continent” or small enough to be called an “island?”

Indeed, it seems we’ve come across a term that is relative rather than definitive—a vernacular rather than a technical term.

What do different dictionaries say?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Oxford Dictionary
Oxford Dictionary

Granted, none of these are Australian, but at least Oxford is British—in other words, non-American. It is also worth noting that dictionaries can be inaccurate with industry-specific and academic terms.

What do encyclopedias say?


Smithsonian's "Earth"
Smithsonian’s “Earth”

An internet example and the only printed example that uses “continent.”

Encyclopedic entries are composed by subject experts, so they toss out words that don’t precisely depict a concept. So the rest of the encyclopedias use continental plates, continental shelves and continental crust.

I have several geography texts on hand (full disclosure, coincidentally all except one are Prentice Hall publications—the regional one is McGill), including a middle school tome World Geography: Building a Global Perspective and the collegiate Physical Geography: A Landscape Appreciation, Essentials of World Regional Geography and Contemporary Human Geography. Let’s see….

Ah, well played standardized texts! They stick with the encyclopedic usage of continental plates for physical geography and generic phrases like “world regions” for human geography.

Upon reflection I also realize that none of my geography teachers in university ever spoke using this troublesome word. At this point it does seem too vague to use in an educational environment save for primary school, about which I can generate an independent blog post on the lies teachers tell you just to unlearn the concepts a few years later. According to the autism specialist I spoke to for a feature story I did for my internship last year, the autistic students struggle with this instruction format more than I do.

So we have one more thing to address: Physical geographers say “continental plates” or “continental shelves” and human geographers say “world regions” or some similar variant. Dictionaries address that continents are named and divided by custom. Custom is a social term, not a scientific or technical one. By this we can surmise that alongside the notion that a continent is a large, continuous land mass it is not incorrect to create a second definition—a cultural definition. If this is the case, then I can’t argue if the United Nations and Australia want to group separate islands and include them with a neighboring physical continent and yet call the entire aggregation a continent.

continent giff
Public Domain GIFF

However, creating a second definition that contradicts the first hardly makes things easier to communicate. I found it both hilarious and frustrating that on this YouTube thread that the concept of a large, continuous land mass completely bypassed some people.

“What about the islands?” they say with the insinuation that it is morally wrong to exclude islands. I’m sure rocks don’t care about these things.

The real question at this point is, “Why did we coin the geographical meaning of continent (as opposed to the ability to control urinary and bowel movements)? To differentiate from islands.” Really, if you want an island to be honored as a continent, you can logically debate that your select island qualifies as large enough.


English words change all the time. Slang can be added to dictionaries. “Selfie” is now a full-fledged, dictionary-defined word.

Many words have etiologies that explicitly mean one thing but we use it in another. What is asexual? In biology it’s a form of reproduction that does not require a male and a female—an individual can produce a genetic copy of itself. In psychology it’s an individual who feels no sexual attraction. However, such examples are not conflicting, just a twist on the original term to suit a human dimension.

“Continent” is a conversationally convenient word with nothing but a rogue definition. “Region” is a much safer, generic, yet more accurate term.

As for the original YouTube comment: there is less agreement on what can be included in Oceania than what are continents, and surely Australia can be a nation, continent and/or island considering we have island nations.

An honorable mention: Hawaii is an island, a state consisting of several islands, yet also a chain of volcanic islands that includes individual islands that are not included in the state of Hawaii.


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