County

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A county, otherwise known as a shire, is a unit of local government that exists in most, and historically, all English speaking countries of the world. The first shires were the ancient divisions of the kingdom of Wessex, and this system was expanded to the whole of England when the kings of Wessex became kings of England in the 10th century. Towards the end of the Medieval period the system was further expanded to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. With the growth of the British Empire the system was expanded to America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Traditionally, the chief officer of a county was a sheriff, a word that comes from the Old English "shire-reeve" (a "reeve" was a general name for an administrative officer). Arguably the most famous sheriff in history was the Sheriff of Nottingham from the Robin Hood legends. This office still survives in modern times, though administrative practice has gradually diverged and whereas in some parts of the USA a sheriff is nowadays a chief of police, in the UK he is a council officer responsible for enforcing court orders.

The term "county" is also used to describe the rural administrative division below a city in China and Taiwan, known in Chinese as 县(Pinyin: xian). Chinese counties have more powers than urban divisions at the same level, known as districts (区,qu). The head of a Chinese county is known as a "magistrate" in English, although this office now has no judicial function. The Chinese term is "xianzhang" {县长}.

In the United States, a county is an administrative level between the city and the state. The town in which the county government is located is called the county seat. Most states are completely divided into counties. However, four states have at least one independent city that is outside of any county. Counties are called parishes in Louisiana and boroughs in Alaska, although much of Alaska lies in an area called the Unorganized Borough, which is governed directly by the state. In some New England states, county governments have been abolished, and the counties exist as geographical areas only.

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