Micropolitan (statistical area)

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Of course I'm familiar with the concept of a "metropolitan statistical area", defined by Wikipedia as "a geographical region with a relatively high population density at its core and close economic ties throughout the area". The United States Office of Management and Budget is responsible for the official list, which comprises 388 MSAs in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

What I didn't know, until I learned it this morning while following up on the Beaver Dam Grammar Brawl, is that there are also 536 "micropolitan statistical areas".  Since micropolitan has the same initial letter as metropolitan, an acronymic conflict arises, which has been resolved by using the Greek letter mu for "micro", so that there are MSAs and μSAs.

Although micropolitan is certainly Out There, and has been duly noted by Merriam-Webster, it has yet to get its Word Induction Ceremony at the OED.




  1. Keith said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    I thought that an acronym was supposed to be easily pronounceable. I would have chosen MetSA and MicSA.

  2. KeithB said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 9:30 am

    SI prefixes have the same problem with milli and micro, usually seen in electronics. So I imagine it will usually be typed as "uSA" like "uA" in electronics for μA.

  3. Bill Taylor said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    Wow – An English acronym that mixes English and Greek letters looks odd to me (maybe 'cause I'm not a scientist dealing with units like μg, μm, etc.). So, how do you pronounce it? Moo-S-A (like American cows chanting in the stands at the Olympics), or Moosa (like a stereotypical Italian tourist talking (in English) about what he saw on vacation in Maine) or something else?

  4. KeithB said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 9:47 am

    For the SI unit, you simply call it "micro", so in your example it would be microgram or micrometer -or micron 8^). These are units and not acronyms, however.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    Bill Taylor: I've never heard μ called "moo" but only "mew".

  6. David said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

    Classics majors are the ones with a picture of a cow with a speech bubble showing "mu" while the physics majors have a picture of a cat with a speech bubble showing "mu". (At least in my small part of the world.)

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

    @Bill Taylor: Moosa won't do, as one of the Shetland Islands is Mousa, pronounced /ˈmusa/. And it has a total population of zero except when there happens to be a bird-watcher on it, so I guess it's a Nanopolitan Statistical Area.

  8. Steve T said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    I know MSAs and μSAs are not governmental units, but isn't the terminology better than "counties", which should be territories under the jurisdiction of a count? We've never been ruled by counts in the US, but 48 states still have counties. The Normans imported the terminology from France and the colonies and states took it over England.

  9. Lazar said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    Using county in former British colonies is one thing, but I've even seen it used to translate such diverse entities as German Landkreise, Swedish län, Romanian județe, Russian rajony and Chinese xiàn.

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    I would call "MSA" an initialism, but I don't know what to call "μSA," since "μ" is not the first letter of "micropolitan."

  11. Keith said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    Your comment about 'it will usually be typed as "uSA" like "uA" in electronics for μA' brings up another couple of linked problems: the substitution of the Latin letter u in place of the Greek letter µ in particular, and the inability of so many people to correctly configure their keyboards to be able to type such characters.

    But this is exactly what I tried to avoid, by referring to MetSA and MicSA: by rendering the element "micro" as "Mic" instead of using the letter µ, we avoid the problem of those who cannot figure out how to type Greek, and also obtain a reasonably unambiguous way of pronouncing the acronym.

  12. Jon said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

    The use of the Greek m for micro causes great problems in physics. After the Fukushima reactor meltdown some radiation doses were over reported by a factor of 1000 because word processing programs changed the Greek m to Roman.

  13. Brett said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

    @Jon: That doesn't sound like a problem in physics; that's a problem in journalism. Nobody in physics gets confused by the Greek prefix.

    As noted above, the distance unit has two names "micrometer" and "micron." It also can be abbreviated either "μm" or just "μ" (although the latter seems to be disappearing with greater SI standardization). When I'm reading, there is a one-to-one correspondence in my head between the abbreviation and my pronunciation. However, I don't know if this is shared by anyone else.

  14. Lazar said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    @Keith: The old Soviet republics provided many opportunities to use that sort of "initialism with supplementary letters" – UkSSR, KazSSR, KirgSSR, LatSSR, LitSSR, ArmSSR, AzSSR…

  15. Sam said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

    "which has been resolved by using the Greek letter mu for "micro", so that there are MSAs and μSAs."
    Although can we be sure that "MSA" isn't also spelt with a mu?

  16. Mark Paris said,

    July 11, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    The Census Web site ( http://www.census.gov/population/metro/about/ ) has a short but good explanation of metropolitan areas. It explains why I remember it as Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA instead of MSA) from my newspaper days; the term changed after I left the field.

  17. KeithB said,

    July 11, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    Jon illustrates the problem. I am sure he typed "greek m" instead of "μ" because he had difficulty figuring out how to type it. I had the same problem, so I just copied and pasted. 8^)

  18. Lugubert said,

    July 12, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

    Steve T wrote, "'counties', which should be territories under the jurisdiction of a count?"
    May I counter with the suggestion that 'counties' looks quite appropriate in an environment where counters' counters are used for counting?

  19. Colin Fine said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 2:27 am

    Steve T: Bzzt! Etymological fallacy!
    My favourite such example is "riding", which I believe is Canadian for "parliamentary constituency", but presumably goes back to the three Ridings (< thridings) of Yorkshire, with a bit of folk etymology thrown in.

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