The noun province is used in two ways, with reference either to a region or territory or to an area of competence or expertise.
The word province is most commonly used of a region or territory which is part of a country and forms a single political and/or administrative unit. Among modern nation states with constituent administrative regions called provinces the best known is perhaps Canada, which has ten provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, etc.). The corresponding administrative units in the United States and Australia are always referred to as states, never as provinces. However, province rather than state is normally used to translate, e.g., the Chinese word (Shěng) for the 33 administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China and the Arabic word ( ﻣﺤﺎﻓﻈﺔ, muhāfadhah) for the equivalent regions in Iraq. Although provinces are generally the administrative units immediately below the tier of central or national government, this is not always so. In Italy, for example, it is the regions (regioni) which constitute the administrative units immediately below the central government, and the provinces (province) are divisions of the regions. No part of the United Kingdom is ever referred to as a province, apart from Northern Ireland, which is sometimes so described by Unionist members of the Northern Irish community – and see below for use of ‘the provinces’.
The word province is also used in ecclesiastical contexts to refer to regions which form administrative units. Both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic Churches divide the world into provinces for administrative purposes – as do various monastic orders, such as the Franciscans.
In the context of Roman History a province is a region, outside Italy, which forms an administrative unit of the Roman Empire and is governed by a senior magistrate sent from Rome, usually an ex-consul or ex-praetor. Many of the Roman provinces were comparable, in respect of their territorial extent, to a modern nation state.
The word province is sometimes used more loosely to mean much the same as district, territory, or region, without any suggestion that what is referred to constitutes an administrative or political unit.
The provinces - in the plural and always with the definite article - are the areas of a country outside its capital and other major cities. In the UK those parts of England outside London and the Home Counties are usually considered to be the provinces. Often implicit in the use of this expression is the assumption (which AWE deplores) that a country’s capital city is the sole or primary seat of culture and sophistication in the country, and that, by comparison with the inhabitants of the capital, those living in the provinces are uncultured and unsophisticated – see further below.
The second, and less common, way in which province is used understands by the word not an area of a country but an area of knowledge, expertise, competence, authority, or the like – as in ‘That is a province of architectural engineering of which I have had little experience’, or ‘I’m sorry I cannot help you: dealing with that issue lies outside my province: it is the province of the Finance Department’
The adjective provincial means ‘of or relating to a province (in the sense of a region or administrative unit of a country)’ – as in ‘the provincial government’ or ‘the provincial transport system’, while, applied to persons, it may mean ‘characteristic of the provinces, in the sense of lacking in culture or sophistication’ - as in ‘I am afraid he is rather provincial’. As a noun, a provincial is either a person from a province – the word is often used in this way in the context of Roman history - or the head of a province within an ecclesiastical or monastic organisation.
A provincialism is anything – e.g., a way of speaking, thinking, or acting – indicative of a lack of culture or sophistication, supposedly characteristic of a person from the provinces.
Etymological note: The English word province comes, through French, from the Latin provincia, which has the same two meanings as its English descendant. It is tempting to believe that provincia is a compound of pro, ‘on behalf of’ and vincere, ‘to conquer’, but this claim is difficult to defend, and the best authorities (e.g., Charlton Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary} say that the etymology of provincia is uncertain.