Every academic discipline has its own special words and phrases. However, it is hard to match geography in terms of words that are just curious. Did you know that “space” and “place” mean very different things? That the “Annals” is the hallmark of a geographer’s career? And the “First Law of Geography” is extremely important, but does not always hold true? To decipher the meanings of these words and phrases, we first must come to terms with the most ambiguous word of them all: “geographer.”
Many people assume that a geographer is either: a) someone who makes maps, or b) someone who studies the Earth. However, someone who makes maps is a cartographer, and someone who studies the Earth is a geologist. In reality, a geographer can study pretty much anything. The best definition of a geographer I have heard was from my Introduction to Geography professor: “A geographer is what a geographer does, and a geographer does what they want.” Geographers are typically classified into two branches of study, “human” and “physical,” although there can also be fascinating overlap between these branches.
“Human Geographer” vs “Physical Geographer”
A human geographer is someone who studies the relationships of people with each other and with their environment. They study social aspects, such as human migration, environmental policy, food systems, health, media, and race.
On the other hand, physical geographers study the natural environment. These geographers study physical systems, such as the physics of climate change, the movement of water, soil conditions, or changing vegetation.
Of course, human and physical systems are often related (for example, actions to combat climate change or manage freshwater), so human and physical geographers can cross over. Both geographers can also study concepts like data systems and computer programming.
“Space” vs. “place”
If you look up the word “place” in a dictionary, it usually refers to a position, whereas “space” typically means an open expanse. You may even think the terms mean the same thing. However, the difference between “space” and “place” is important to geographers because these words mean vastly different things.
“Space” can mean two things to geographers. It can refer to a location, like a physical address or latitude/longitude coordinates, or it can refer to how people interact with other people and their environments. For example, a geographer could say that Indiana University has many spaces (buildings, parks, etc.) for people to relate with one another.
“Place” refers to the meaning that we as humans give to a location. A geographer could say that the spaces of Indiana University are made into “places” because of students’ experiences and histories in them. A place does not need to be set in one location. For example, a traveling ship could be a place with shared meanings and experiences to sailors regardless of where it is located . Something could also be both a space and a place, like how a place of worship could refer to a location and its meaning.
“The First Law of Geography”
The First Law of Geography states that things near each other are more closely related than things far apart. This law is often true. For example, the trees and wildlife of Monroe County, Indiana are going to be more closely related to the trees and wildlife of neighboring Brown County, Indiana than to those of Australia or the Arctic. This law is foundational for making decisions and conducting analyses regarding governance, natural resources management, and computing. However, there are instances in which this law may not apply as well. For example, would you say that you are most closely related to your neighbors?  This law can often apply to physical geography, but becomes more complicated for human geography.
When geographers talk about the “Annals,” they are referring to the prestigious academic journal Annals of the Association of American Geographers. It is considered a huge achievement to publish one’s work in this journal.
There are probably hundreds of noteworthy geography terms out there, but these words and phrases are some of the more common ones. The best thing to do if you hear a term you are unfamiliar with is to ask a geographer what it means. Geographers will often argue over the merits and meanings of different terms, so do not be surprised if you get different answers from different geographers.
I thank geographer Drew Heiderscheidt for his help understanding this lingo.
 Creswell, T. (2013). Geographic Thought: A Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell.
 Tobler, W. R. (1970). A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region. Economic Geography, 46, 234-240.
Edited by Chloe Holden and Evan Leake