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inscriptions, both Terra In Cognita and Mare In Cognito.]]

Terra incognita (Latin "unknown land," with incognita stressed on its second syllable in Latin, but with variation in pronunciation in English) is a term used in cartography for regions that have not been mapped or documented. The expression is not found in ancient texts, and occurs first in the sixteenth century. The equivalent on French maps would be terres inconnues (plural form), and some English maps may show Parts Unknown.

Similarly, uncharted or unknown seas would be labeled mare incognitum, Latin for "unknown sea".

An urban legend claims that cartographers labelled such regions with "Here be dragons". Although cartographers did claim that fantastic beasts (including large serpents) existed in remote corners of the world and depicted such as decoration on their maps, only one known surviving map, the Lenox Globe, in the collection of the New York Public Library [1], actually says "Here be dragons" (using the Latin form "HIC SVNT DRACONES"). [2] However, ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers did use the phrase HIC SVNT LEONES (literally, Here be lions) when denoting unknown territories on maps.

Alternatively, Terra incognita may also refer to the imaginary continent Terra Australis.

During the 19th century terra incognita disappeared from maps, since both the coastlines and the inner parts of the continents had been fully explored.

The phrase is now also used metaphorically by various researchers to describe any unexplored subject or field of research.



  • Terra: Latin name for the planet Earth.
  • Incognita: From the Latin Cognoscere "to know", which is related to the Greek Gnosis (γνώσις) "knowledge". Related English words:

Uses of the phrase

Given its meaning the phrase "terra incognita" is extensively used as a name or title, for instance:

  • as the name of the last section in the libertarian journal Liberty Magazine, containing obscure and strange clippings from newspapers around the world
  • in the 2008 TV miniseries form of The Andromeda Strain, the scientists discover an alien life form they refer to as terra incognita
  • as the title of a 2007 documentary on stem cell research and spinal cord injury directed by Maria Finitzo for Kartemquin Films,
  • as the name of an adventure race organized in Croatia,
  • as the title of the first album of the French progressive group Gojira released in 2000,
  • as the name of the third part of the Consortium Project by Ian Parry released in 2003,
  • in the name of an interpretive design studio, Terra Incognita Productions,
  • as the name of a roleplaying game,
  • as the title of several blogs.
  • as the land beyond the "ominous arch" in the Tennessee Williams play Camino Real.
  • In the Pirates of the Caribbean film trilogy, the phrase (rendered incorrectly as Terra Incognito) is used as the name of a fictional mappa mundi on the office wall of international British merchant Lord Cutler Beckett. The map is being painted on continuously as the series progresses, and its constant addition symbolizes the imperialism of the East India Trading Co., the trilogy's fictionalized version of the Honourable East India Company. (See East India Trading Co.#Terra Incognito.)
  • In the games of Paradox Interactive, the name given to unexplored land and sea areas. Locations which cannot be explored in-game, such as polar regions, are known as Permanent Terra Incognita.
  • as the name of the reality tv game show Terra incognita produced by Ludo Poppe
  • as the name of the third album by the music group Phasmid Hunting Guide [Terra Incognita, released in 2008].
  • as the name of one of the lands in the Vertigo Series The Dreaming.
  • as the name of a song by Happy Rhodes.
  • as the name of a song by If These Trees Could Talk.
  • Captain Kirk refers to San Francisco in 1986 as Terra Incognita in the movie Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home.
  • as the name of Sarah Wheeler's book on her travels through the barren and beautiful Antarctic continent
  • in reference to the financial state of affairs resulting from the economic crisis of 2008, "Under Strain, Cities Are Cutting Back Projects," (NY Times, 9/30/2008)
  • Commodore M. C. Perry refers to Japan as "...almost terra incognita" within the introduction of his report to the US congress; "Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan" [1856]

See also


  1. "Guide to the Research Collections, Resources Elsewhere in the Collections". New York Public Library. 207-208.;td=2;nn=1;pt=24166. Retrieved on 2006-08-22. 
  2. "Here Be Dragons on Old Maps". MapHist. Retrieved on 2006-08-22. 




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