Question: I'm trying to figure out what is meant by "continental United States." Does it include Alaska? It seems as if it should, since Alaska is in the North American continent.

Answer: You asked a hard question, for which there is no simple answer. Since a word's definitions are determined by usage, to find out "what is meant" by a term we have to turn to examples of the term's use found in everyday prose.

In many cases it's clear that Alaska is not included in the "continental" United States. Its exclusion is most obvious in examples that mention Alaska separately, as in "the continental United States, Hawaii and Alaska," but it can also be revealed in more subtle ways, as in "in England all gardens lie north of the continental United States." And when "continental United States" is used as a comparison to illustrate the size of some other geographic area ("roughly the size of the continental United States"), it is probably safe to say that Alaska is not being included.

But the inclusion of Alaska is also common, as in an article placing Mt. McKinley in the continental United States. Again, we must rely on context. The clearest examples of this more inclusive use of "continental" are those that come right out and name Alaska. In "the continental United States, excluding Alaska," the need to exclude Alaska can only arise from the assumption that it would normally be included.

Unfortunately, there are numerous instances in which there is no way to tell whether Alaska is meant to be included in the continental United States or not. For example, can an 800 number "lim-it-ed to the continental United States" be used in Alaska? There's no sure way to tell, although it's probably safer to assume that Alaska is not included.

There are, of course, occasions when "continental United States" is used and the inclusion of Alaska isn't even an issue - the point, instead, being the exclusion of Hawaii. Whether or not the writer of "the largest native palm trees of the continental United States" was thinking of 48 states or 49 doesn't really matter.

Question: Can you explain the word "fourth estate"? How did it come to mean the press?

Answer: The word "estate" in "fourth estate" comes from former political divisions in Europe. People who participated in the political life of a country were organized into three groups or estates. In England, these three traditional estates were the nobility, the clergy and the common people. Any other group that exerted unofficial but often significant influence on public affairs was called the fourth estate. In the 19th century, "fourth estate" came to be applied exclusively to the press.

Question: Can you tell me anything about how the word "uproar" developed from the word "roar"?

Answer: Actually, despite appearances and intuition to the contrary, the word "uproar" did not develop from the word "roar." "Uproar" was borrowed into English from Dutch in its Dutch form "oproer." "Oproer" means "revolt, uprising" and is made up of the Dutch words `op' meaning "up" and `roer' meaning "motion."

When "oproer" was borrowed into English, its Dutch meaning was initially retained. Through the process known as folk etymology, its spelling and meaning were changed to fit similar and familiar English words. English speakers assumed that the "roar" in "uproar" did indeed refer to loud cries or sounds, and so the word went from meaning "uprising" to meaning "a state of commotion."

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Send questions to. Merriam-Webster's Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal Street, Springfield, MA 01102.