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I often see certain territories/ semi-sovereignties alternatively referred to as a "nation" or a "country".

For example, Quebec (the province in Canada) likes to be referred to as a "nation". Native American tribes in the USA and Canada also like to be called "nations".

However, Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the UK like to be called "countries". I am sure there are many other examples of the usage of either term.

What is the difference between the two terms? Is there a legal distinction, or is it a matter of preference, or some other reason?

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What is the difference between a "nation" and a "country"?

Difference.wiki, Difference Between Country vs. Nation:

The nation is a cultural and a political term, whereas country is more of the geographical and the political term. Both these words are often used interchangeably as they are said to be a synonym of one and another. The close insight into both these words tells that they are quite different, especially regarding the usage. The country refers to the particular area, region or the territory that is controlled by its government. Contrary to this, the nation refers to the large body of the people, which are united by culture, common descent, and the history. In some cases, the nation also denotes the large group united by culture with living in the specific area.


Is there a legal distinction, or is it a matter of preference, or some other reason?

Countries have laws; nations have identity. If a nation's identity is recognized, it has a legal distinction, such at the Navajo Nation in the United States. However,

For instance, Kurdish people claim to make together a nation known as the ‘nation of Kurdistan’, but they didn’t get recognized by Western countries or even from their closest neighbors.

What is Country?

The country is the political and geographical term that tells about the specific region and territory. It also comes with the concept of the control of the government in its area. ...

What is Nation?

The nation is cultural as well as the political term that refers to the large group, which is united regarding the culture, history, language and descent. ...

Country vs. Nation

  • The nation is the large group of people that has a common history, language, and culture and inhibits in a specific state or the country. Contrary to this, a country is the area or the region controlled by its government.
  • The country refers to the particular area, whereas the nation refers to a particular group of people.
  • The term ‘nation’ is used more in the political field. On the other hand, the term country is more exclusive to the political and geographical field.
  • The country is the concrete concept which can even be denoted using the lines on the map, whereas the nation is the abstract concept.
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There is no simple answer.

In Ulysses the Irish Nationalist asks Bloom what a "nation" is. Bloom (an Irish-Hungarian Jew) replies "“A nation is the same people living in the same place.” To which he quickly adds (thinking of the Irish and Jewish dispora): “Or also living in different places.”

This just goes to show how hopeless any legally watertight defintion of "nation" is going to be.

Scotland is called a "country" but it isn't independent. The Navajo are called a "Nation", but have sovereignty limited by treaty with USA. As Bloom observed, "The Irish" are sometimes considered as a "nation", though only a minority now live in Ireland, and the dominion of the sovereign state doesn't run over the whole of Ireland. California is a State, but it has very limited independence of the USA.

On the other hand, Japan is a nation, a country, a State and independent and Sovereign.

Sometimes you just have to accept that there is no simple definition that fits everything.

  • See also Rick's answer, which makes a good attempt to discuss how the words are used differently. – James K Jul 16 at 8:31
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Usually synonyms, but there are differences in connotation:

  • the term country tends to connote the land, its geography irrespective of national borders, as well as the feasible range of cultures such geography necessarily imposes on its residents. Usages: "Ride the high country", "Our country's flag", "My Country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty", "Cry, the Beloved Country", ... note there how unlike a nation, a country can be poetically addressed. Swap country for nation in any of those usages, and the meanings (if any remain) are changed.

  • the term nation connotes more of a relative space or place occupied by a generally unified mass of peoples, who typically share strong bonds, with large related families, religions, laws, and culture. A nation's culture is that culture which is a consequence of its customs, laws, and beliefs, and is more or less constant no matter where they reside.

    A nation might be nomadic, (deliberately moving from place to place as a way of national life), dislocated, (as with fugitives, exiles, and lost tribes), or even imperial, (it shifts geographical shape, often trying to enlarge itself as it assimilates other nations). Like Hobbes' Leviathan. Usages: "One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all", "the national interest", "the national debt", "a nation of sheep"...

A nation that identifies itself as a country is making a distinction about, and a virtue of, its relative stability among nations. It implies a national culture and a country's culture that are almost inextricably interwoven, and perhaps a skepticism of the available alternatives. On a reduced scale this distinction resembles the peculiar pride of a rural person who prefers living and staying, in one place out in the country, as opposed to the contrary pride of a cosmopolitan careerist who might hop from city to city.

  • Cites pending... – agc Jul 16 at 15:03

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