The Netherlands' name literally means "Lower Countries", influenced by its low land and flat geography, with only about 50% of its land exceeding one metre above sea level. Most of the areas below sea level are man-made. Since the late 16th century, large areas (polders) have been reclaimed from the sea and lakes, amounting to nearly 17% of the country's current land mass.
The Netherlands was the third country in the world to have an elected parliament, and since 1848 it has been governed as a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy, organised as a unitary state. The Netherlands has a long history of social tolerance and is generally regarded as a liberal country.
The Netherlands in its entirety is often referred to by the much older designation "Holland" (meaning holt land, or wood land), though in a strict sense this refers only to North and South Holland, two of the nation's twelve provinces, formerly a single province and earlier the County of Holland. This originally Frankish county emerged from the dissolved Frisian Kingdom and was economically and politically the most important county in the region. Because of this importance, Holland served as a pars pro toto for the entire country, and is considered either incorrect or informal, depending on the context, but is more acceptable when referring to the national football team.
The Romans made a distinction between the Roman provinces of downstream Germania Inferior (nowadays part of Belgium and the Netherlands) and upstream Germania Superior (nowadays part of Germany). The designation 'Low' to refer to the region returns again in the 10th century Duchy of Lower Lorraine, which covered much of the Low Countries.