Have you ever been corrected in Finland when you called a Finn "Scandinavian"? Or perhaps this has happened to you in Iceland? Is Denmark a Nordic country? Are the Danes actually Scandinavians? It is a distinction often hard to make for anyone that is not a resident of the countries in the region. So let's find out what exactly the difference is in the usage of these expressions.
Although in the rest of the world the words "Scandinavian" and "Nordic" are happily used in a similar manner and are interchangeable, in northern Europe, they are not.
Indeed, Europeans love to magnify even the smallest difference between neighboring countries and you will probably be corrected if you don't use the words in their appropriate context. In our view, the true problem is discovered when even Europeans (or Scandinavians) themselves can not agree on the meaning of "Scandinavian" and "Nordic..."
Let us go back to the basics to clarify each expression.
Where is Scandinavia?
Geographically speaking, the Scandinavian peninsula is the area shared by Norway, Sweden, and part of northern Finland. In this view, the Scandinavian countries would, therefore, focus only on Norway and Sweden.
Linguistically, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish has a common word called "Skandinavien". That word refers to the ancient territories of the Norsemen: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. This definition is considered to be the most commonly accepted definition of "Scandinavia" at the present time, but this interpretation can easily change across different regions.
So we focus on the territory of the Norsemen. However, Iceland was also one of the Norsemen's regions. In addition, Icelandic belongs to the same linguistic family as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. And so do the Faroe Islands. Therefore, you will find that many non-Scandinavian natives connect Scandinavia to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.
And finally, Swedish is used partially in Finland just as Finnish is spoken in Norway and Sweden. Again, this gives a new, wider, definition which includes Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland.
Culturally and historically, the north of Europe has been the political playground of the kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Finland was a part of the kingdom of Sweden, and Iceland belonged to Norway and Denmark. Besides a common history, politically and economically these five countries have followed a similar model known as the Nordic welfare state since the 20th century.
What are the "Nordic countries"
In such a state of linguistic and geographical confusion, the French came to help us all and invented the term "Pays Nordiques" or "Nordic Countries", which has become a common term to bring together Scandinavia, Iceland, and Finland under the same umbrella.
The Baltic countries and Greenland
The Baltic countries are the three young Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Neither the Baltic countries nor Greenland is considered Scandinavian or Nordic.
However, there is a close relation between the Nordic countries and the Baltics and Greenland: The Baltic republics have been strongly influenced, both culturally and historically, by the Scandinavian countries.
The same applies to Greenland, a territory which is closer to America than to Europe, but that belongs politically to the kingdom of Denmark. Half of Greenland's historical and cultural heritage is Scandinavian and therefore these strong ties often bring Greenland together with the Nordic countries.