Thursday, 31 October 2013

Britain - What It Is & What It Ain't

The island of Great Britain
Satellite image by NASA


[Old English Breoten, Breten, Bryten from Latin Brittones (see BRITON);
later forms from Old French Bretaigne (modern -agne), from Latin Brittan(n)ia from Brit(t)anni, corresponding to Greek Bret(t)anoi, Pret(t)anoi.]

More fully (especially as a political term) Great Britain.
As a geographical and political term: (the main island and smaller offshore islands making up)
England, Scotland, and Wales, sometimes with the Isle of Man.
Also (as a political term) the United Kingdom, Britain and its dependencies, (formerly) the British Empire.

Note: Britain, after the Old English period, was for long used only as a historical term, but in 1604 James I and VI was proclaimed 'King of Great Britain'
and this name was adopted for the then United Kingdom at the Union in 1707.

Also: obsolete Britainer noun = BRITON noun L16-E19

The British people have many curious traditions: warm beer, cricket, bamboozling foreigners with bizarre accents and divvy words, and throwing cucumber sandwiches at passing cars. However, one of their greatest joys is utterly befuddling the world as to what their country is actually called. In fact, so culturally ingrained is this heritage of bafflement and complication that most British people are themselves unsure what country they're from: is it Great Britain, Britain, the United Kingdom or (and be careful with this one) England? Therefore, to end this long and cruel history of political misdirection, Lexicolatry is going to clear this up - right here, right now, once and for all. Never again will a Briton hesitate with uncertainty when asked where he is from, or have to endure the bemused glances of immigration officers when they flounder over their country of origin: "I'm from Britain ... no ... wait ... the United ... umm ... England. No ... it's ... the United Britain of Great England. That's it. That's definitely it." So here we go:

Great Britain is an island, northwest of France and to the east of Ireland. Great Britain comprises of three countries, none of which are independent states: England, Scotland and Wales. Their capitals are London, Edinburgh and Cardiff respectively, and although their state as a whole has its centre of government in London, England, both Scotland and Wales have certain levels of devolved power. However, the important part to remember is that Great Britain is an island.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
(with helpful arrows showing its constituent countries)
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is usually shortened to the United Kingdom or just the UK, is a sovereign state. The UK comprises of the countries of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and also Northern Ireland, which is a country on the north-eastern end of the island of Ireland. Again, Northern Ireland is not an independent state, but has a certain level of devolved power with its capital in Belfast. The capital of the UK is London, over which reigns the British monarch as Head of State and also the Prime Minister.

So, that wasn't so difficult, right?

  • Great Britain (or Britain) = The island comprising of England, Scotland & Wales
  • The UK = The sovereign state comprising of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland 

Of course, Brits don't like to make it that simple, and matters are often confused by an interchangeability in the terminology (at least in popular usage). Therefore, Britain is often used to refer to the UK and vice versa, and foreigners often think it's all just England, a mistake that understandably causes some consternation to those from the UK, but who define themselves as Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish or Irish. That being said, there are all kinds of cultural and political sensitives at play, and these definitions reflect the official legal and political status, rather than any particular political leaning or slant, and none of this is even attempting to tackle the complicated nature of Crown Dependencies, British Overseas Territories or Commonwealth Nations. Phew.

Union Jack, Union Flag
The flag of the UK
(not England)
Are you from Britain?

Are you not from Britain?

Have you been similarly confused by the terminology?

Do please comment below.


  1. Um...but the thing is, you see, I'd absolutely hate anyone to think I was boasting...

    1. Yes, yes, yes ... because clever Sally Prue knew all of this already - we know!

  2. I'll come back later and read your post. For the time being, you there's an award for you over at my blog.

    1. Excuse the typo and the double irrelevant comment.

    2. Ooh!


      (and sorry for the slow response - I was actually travelling back from the island of Great Britain today)

    3. Don't worry.
      When I wanted to explain all this stuff about GB to my students in Greece, I drew a pear-shaped thing and then a little circular shape next to it. I guess it was the less complicated way to make a Greek kid understand the basics about the UK.

  3. I am not from Britain and I think all of the above is very confusing. Who decided to make it so difficult, huh? Calling England a country while it actually is part of one, for example. No wonder I once lost at a drinking game where one of the questions was to list as many European countries you could think of. "England" was considered wrong, so drink is what I had to do.

    1. Bibi! That's scandalous! England is definitely and most unambiguously a country!

      Well ... umm ... except it is quite ambiguous, as it really depends on how you define 'country'. If part of one's definition is that it's an independent state, then no, England wouldn't qualify. However, the point of the 'United Kingdom' is that it's a state of united countries. May I point you (and your un-learned quizmaster) to the Wikipedia page Countries of the United Kingdom? It's on Wikipedia, for goodness sake and, as we all know, Wikipedia is infallible.

    2. She was just a bitch. If I had said "the United Kingdom" it would've been wrong either, because "It's The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, you ignorant fool." (Exact words, only translated to English. Yep, a bitch she was. That was right before she stormed off into the pitch-black darkness in the middle of nowhere because the others said she was being too strict and ruining the fun for everyone. We were 23 at the time. That's a true adult response.)

    3. Wrong as well? Wrong as well. I beg your pardon great leader of the English language. *kneels at your feet*

  4. So there is one country (The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) which is composed of four somewhat autonomous regions (Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland), correct?

    1. And Scotland, England and Wales together are Great Britain (Britain, Britain...), which is basically just a way of making things difficult just to be difficult. Because Great Britain is just the island. Just the soil, the land, the thingiemajingies... not really anything state-y. Right? Not right?

    2. Yes ... that's all unconfusingly right. Yay!

  5. Having to explain that Wales is a part of Great Britain is like a ballet dancer admitting that she has armpits.


    (To Ed's Welsh readers, I'm sort of joking.........and well done.)