DEPARTMENT (Fr. département, from départir, to separate into parts), a division. The word is used of the branches of the administration in a state or municipality; in Great Britain it is applied to the subordinate divisions only of the great offices and boards of state, such as the bankruptcy department of the Board of Trade, but in the United States these subordinate divisions are known as "bureaus," while "department" is used of the eight chief branches of the executive.
A particular use of the word is that for a territorial division of France, corresponding loosely to an English county. Previous to the French Revolution, the local unit in France was the province, but this division was too closely bound up with the administrative mismanagement of the old régime. Accordingly, at the suggestion of Mirabeau, France was redivided on entirely new lines, the thirty-four provinces being broken up into eighty-three departments (see French Revolution). The idea was to render them as nearly as possible equal to a certain average of size and population, though this was not always adhered to. They derived their names principally from rivers, mountains or other prominent geographical features. Under Napoleon the number was increased to one hundred and thirty, but in 1815 it was reduced to eighty-six. In 1860 three new departments were created out of the newly annexed territory of Savoy and Nice. In 1871 three departments (Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin and Moselle) were lost after the German war. Of the remains of the Haut-Rhin was formed the territory of Belfort, and the fragments of the Moselle were incorporated in the department of Meurthe, which was renamed Meurthe-et-Moselle, making the number at present eighty-seven. For a complete list of the departments see France. Each department is presided over by an officer called a prefect, appointed by the government, and assisted by a prefectorial council (conseil de préfecture). The departments are subdivided into arrondissements, each in charge of a sub-prefect. Arrondissements are again subdivided into cantons, and these into communes, somewhat equivalent to the English parish (see France: Local Government).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)