Continental United States

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The continental United States refers (except sometimes in U.S. federal law and regulations) to the largest part of the U.S. that is delimited by a continuous border. Specifically, this includes 48 states and the federal capital of the U.S., the District of Columbia; it excludes Alaska and Hawaii.

The continental United States is also used in its more literal sense to refer to those 48 states plus Alaska.

The 48 states + DC are also referred to as:

  • the contiguous states,
  • the contiguous United States (abbreviated in various specialized contexts as "CONUS"),
  • the conterminous or coterminous states,
  • the "lower 48",
  • in Hawaii, as "the mainland" or "the continent", and
  • in Alaska, as "outside".

All of these have some shortcoming of logic, ambiguity, or excessive or deficient formality. In particular:

  • no collection of states includes the District of Columbia.
  • "conterminous" and "coterminous" are rare, somewhat technical words. In addition, they are more generally used in the sense of having fully coincident boundaries. That is, the County of Hawaii and the Island of Hawaii are conterminous, and the eastern border of Arizona in conterminous with the western border of New Mexico, but it is inaccurate to say that Arizona and New Mexico are "conterminous" without some such clarification.
  • while Hawaii is not part of any continent, Alaska is clearly, like the contiguous states, part of North America, and excluding it from the "continental U.S." must be described as a misnomer.

It is sometimes objected that since, for example, Oregon and Maryland are neither "contiguous" nor "conterminous", that these words are inappropriate to describe the whole main area of the US. However, the phrase Contiguous United States is entirely in keeping with the general use of the word "contiguous", as in Long rows of contiguous houses or the contiguous colors of the rainbow. In addition, "conterminous" is occasionally used in the same broad sense, as in Allied species, whose ranges are separate but conterminous. In the case of the US states, the disambiguating word "separate" would not be necessary. (Examples from the OED.)

Use in federal law

As the language of the Alaska Omnibus Act of 1959 makes apparent, the term was in use in U.S. federal law prior to then. It presumably dates from after the acquisition of Alaska in 1867, and probably from after the Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawaii brought the U.S. its first off-continent possessions, both in 1898. Whatever else these terms may be, "continental United States" is a term defined in various federal laws, in different ways in different time periods; it is also defined in different ways at the same time, depending on whether the context was the IRS or not, during at least a period that began with Alaska statehood.

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