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Middle English topographie, from Late Latin topographia, from Greek, from topographein to describe a place, from topos place + graphein to write

The term topography originated in ancient Greece and continued in ancient Rome, as the detailed description of a place. The word comes from the Greek words τόπος (topos, place) and γραφία (graphia, writing). In classical literature this refers to writing about a place or places, what is now largely called 'local history'. In Britain and in Europe in general, the word topography is still sometimes used in its original sense.

Detailed military surveys in Britain (beginning in the late eighteenth century) were called Ordnance Surveys, and this term was used into the 20th century as generic for topographic surveys and maps. The earliest scientific surveys in France were called the Cassini maps after the family who produced them over four generations. The term "topographic surveys" appears to be American in origin. The earliest detailed surveys in the United States were made by the “Topographical Bureau of the Army,” formed during the War of 1812. After the work of national mapping was assumed by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1878, the term topographical remained as a general term for detailed surveys and mapping programs, and has been adopted by most other nations as standard.

In the 20th century, the term topography started to be used to describe surface description in other fields where mapping in a broader sense is used, particularly in medical fields such as neurology.


  • 1 a : the art or practice of graphic delineation in detail usually on maps or charts of natural and man-made features of a place or region especially in a way to show their relative positions and elevations
b : topographical surveying
b : the physical or natural features of an object or entity and their structural relationships <the topography of human chromosomes> <the political topography of our time>


Topography (from Greek τόπος topo-, "place", and γράφω graphia, "writing") is the study of Earth's surface shape and features or those of planets, moons, and asteroids. It is also the description of such surface shapes and features (especially their depiction in maps).

The topography of an area can also mean the surface shape and features themselves.

In a broader sense, topography is concerned with local detail in general, including not only relief but also vegetative and human-made features, and even local history and culture. This meaning is less common in America, where topographic maps with elevation contours have made "topography" synonymous with relief. The older sense of topography as the study of place still has currency in Europe.

Topography as it specifically involves the recording of relief or terrain, the three-dimensional quality of the surface, and the identification of specific landforms, is also known as geomorphometry. In modern usage, this involves generation of elevation data in electronic form. It is often considered to include the graphic representation of the landform on a map by a variety of techniques, including contour lines, Hypsometric tints, and relief shading.[1]