Montserrat, and FX for France

Gwillim Law gwil at
Sat Aug 30 20:49:02 UTC 1997

To Mr. Eggert:  The NIMA Geographic Names Server says that Olveston, Montserrat is a "populated locality" at 16 deg. 44 min. N., 62 deg. 13 min. W.

In response to M. Leca's comments about FR/FX, I have a different opinion.  The question is, which ISO 3166 code should be used for Paris, France:  FR or FX.  FR is identified in the standard as representing "France", while FX is "France, Metropolitan".

First, it should be made clear that there is no one correct answer.  The introductory notes to the standard clearly state that there may be areas of overlap between two codes.  Without question, Paris is within the area intended to be covered by both codes, FR and FX.

It may also be germane to note that FX is a new code, introduced in ISO 3166 Newsletter III-24, dated 1993-06-18.

What accounts for the "areas of overlap"?  The only clue that the standard provides to areas of coverage of each code are the remarks in column 5 of the countries list.  About 80% of these remarks are to explain which isolated islands are or are not included in the country.  The remaining 20% are about previous name or code changes.  Apparently, the standard is meant to avoid overlap.

The introductory notes give only one example of overlap:  France (FR) and Martinique (MQ).  As far as I can tell, all of the overlaps follow the same paradigm:  a mother country and its remote possessions.  Thus, the Netherlands (NL) presumably includes not just the European country but Netherlands Antilles (AN) and Aruba (AW) as well.  Likewise with Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands.

It would be very, very nice if every point of land in the world (except border points) could be assigned to one and only one country code.  Until 1993, it was possible to do this, by making a single simplifying assumption:  that in such cases of overlap, the mother country's code would be used only if none of the codes for the country's overseas possessions applied.  This fit neatly with common sense.  We would say that Copenhagen was in DK because that was the only choice.  Nuuk would be coded as GL, even though DK might also be allowed by the standard, because GL conveys more information than DK.

I maintain a geographical reference database, in which points are keyed to countries, and countries are taken from ISO 3166.  I had assigned points to countries as described above.  Paris was in FR, Fort-de-France was in MQ, and so on.  When the change notice came out in 1993, I was put in a quandary.  I could either leave the code for France as FR, or change it to FX.  (Or I could merge all of the overseas departments and territories with FR, but that certainly didn't seem like the best choice.)

Changing France to FX would have been more consistent with the principles I had followed.  On the other hand, I would have had to educate all my data customers about the reasons behind the change.  It would have been a hard sell.  Even now, four years later, I don't think anyone I deal with is aware of FX.  Besides, I personally find FX unappealing.  The codes from XA to XZ are reserved, so there will never be a country code beginning with X.  The only codes ending with X before 1993 were CX for tiny Christmas Island and MX for Mexico, which does have an X in it.

I decided to take the position, which still seems justified, that FX is an aberration; that it was introduced for some technical purpose, not of general interest; and that the rest of us can ignore it.

If new codes were created for Metropolitan Denmark, Metropolitan Netherlands, Metropolitan United States, and so on, I would probably reconsider my position.  It would also depend on how the introductory notes to ISO 3166 were changed to explain the new codes.  As matters stand, I prefer to act as if FX didn't exist:  not because it's the only right thing to do, but because it's one of the right possibilities, and it's expedient.

--  Gwillim Law

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