updated 1/12/2007 7:21:00 PM ET 2007-01-13T00:21:00

How great is California? Well, if it broke off from the United States and became its own country, it would be the “sixth-largest economy” in the world, as the oft-repeated phrase goes.

The description has become ubiquitous, championed so often by politicians and reporters that it has become boilerplate for describing the state’s buoyant economy. Most recently, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used it in his state of the state address to make a case for comparing California to ancient Greece — a modern-day “nation-state.”

“California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta,” Schwarzenegger said during Tuesday’s address. “As you know, California, if a nation, would be the sixth-largest economy in the world.”

If only it were true.

California’s economy no longer ranks No. 6, but rather is the eighth-largest economy in the world.

The state, with about 37 million residents, ranks behind the United States, Japan, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, according to U.S. Commerce Department and World Bank figures. Spain and Canada complete the top 10.

No California official has bothered to correct the figure’s public use. Schwarzenegger, it turns out, has never even governed the sixth-largest economy.

The state ranked seventh when he was elected during the 2003 recall election, having just slipped behind France and Italy in gross domestic product, according to the World Bank and California finance officials, who annually rank the state’s economy based on figures provided by the Commerce Department.

California last ranked sixth in 1999.

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