When you’re talking about that little island in northern Europe (well, actually the biggest island in Europe) that used to rule the largest empire in history, what exactly are you supposed to call it? Is it the United Kingdom, Britain, or Great Britain? Are they even the same thing, or does that depend on whether you’re describing it geographically, politically or culturally? Can all citizens of the United Kingdom describe themselves as British? And what about the British Isles, just to add to the confusion?
Let’s try and get to the bottom of this Very British Mystery.
The United Kingdom (or UK for short) is a sovereign state, or country. Its official name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It consists of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island, and it is governed by a constitutional monarchy. The UK is one of the realms of the Commonwealth (see below).
Great Britain (or Britain for short — there is no difference) has both a geographical and a political identity. Geographically, it is an island: the largest island in Europe, the ninth largest in the world, and the third most populous. Politically, Great Britain refers to the combined countries of England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland, and it includes some islands that lie off its constituent countries — such as the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides, and the remote island groups of Orkney and Shetland. The whole island of Great Britain is a territory of the sovereign state of the UK, and most of the UK’s territory is in Great Britain. Most of England, Scotland, and Wales are on the island of Great Britain.
The name “Britain” dates back to the time of Aristotle; its first citing is actually in Pseudo-Aristotle’s text On the Universe. Before that time, the island that we now call Great Britain was known as “Albion”. This probably derives from the Latin albus, meaning white, and possibly described the white cliffs of Dover that provided the first glimpse of Britain to many a traveler from mainland Europe. “Great Britain” was first used officially in 1474 when a marriage proposal was drawn up between Cecily, the daughter of Edward IV of England, and James, the eldest son and heir of James III of Scotland.
Here’s a potted history of the UK/Great Britain, courtesy of Wikipedia: “The Kingdom of Great Britain resulted from the political union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland with the Acts of Union 1707 on 1 May 1707 under Queen Anne. In 1801, under a new Act of Union, this kingdom merged with the Kingdom of Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. After the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) most of Ireland seceded from the Union, which then became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
It’s curious that (Great) Britain has its own adjectival form, British, which describes anything of or related to Great Britain and its people, language or culture, as well as the related noun that describes the people of this land collectively and the language they speak on their own territory. But there is no equivalent adjective or noun for the United Kingdom, and this might help to explain some of the naming confusion surrounding this sovereign nation. British actually has an additional, wider definition: relating to, denoting, or characteristic of Britain or any of the natives, citizens, or inhabitants of the United Kingdom or of the Commonwealth. Therefore, a person who lives in Northern Ireland (and therefore not technically in Great Britain) is still British, by virtue of her citizenship or residence.
And then to heap even further confusion on an already complicated subject, the language that is spoken throughout Great Britain and the UK — and indeed in most member countries of the Commonwealth and in large parts of the Western world — is English. So the vast majority of Britons or Brits speak English, but they aren’t necessarily English: that is a nationality, adjective and privilege that can be claimed only by those who were born and/or live in the country called England. A Welshman is not and never will be English; neither is a Scot or a Northern Irishman, and they will probably strike you down with a fierce but witty Gaelic insult if you suggest as much …
Now, what about those territories and dependencies that fall outside those four constituent countries of the UK, but still seem to have British status?
The UK has 14 British Overseas Territories under its jurisdiction and sovereignty, but they don’t form part of the UK. They are effectively the last remnants of the British Empire that have not gained their own independence and have voted to remain a British territory, sharing the British monarch as head of state.
Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man are Crown dependencies. These are self-governing possessions of the British crown: independently administered jurisdictions that are not sovereign nations in their own right. They aren’t part of the UK, the Commonwealth or the EU, and they aren’t one of the British Overseas Territories.
The British Isles is a geographical name describing the archipelago in northwestern Europe that includes the islands (and sovereignties) of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as more than six thousand smaller isles.
There are 54 member countries of the Commonwealth of Nations (usually just called the Commonwealth, or sometimes informally the British Commonwealth), an association of nations consisting of the United Kingdom and several former British colonies that are now sovereign states. The UK is one of the Commonwealth Realms. ‘Realm’ indicates a Commonwealth country that has The Queen (Elizabeth II) as its sovereign, while ‘monarchy’ indicates a Commonwealth country that has its own monarch as Head of State. The Commonwealth formed in the late 19th century when the decolonization of the British Empire was well underway with the increased self-governance of its territories. Membership of the Commonwealth is voluntary, so members can withdraw at any time — as the Republic of Ireland did in 1949, and Zimbabwe in 2003.
Britannia was the ancient name for Roman Britain; it originally designated a collection of islands with individual names that included Albion; however, by the 1st century BC, Britannia came to be used for Britain specifically. Its use declined after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century — although it did enjoy a comeback during the English Renaissance when it captured the unity and national pride of Great Britain. Britannia has also endured as the female personification of that island, and especially after the unification of the kingdoms of England and Scotland in the early 18th century, she came to symbolize the very notion of British imperial power and unity. She first appeared on the (quarter-penny) farthing in 1672 and continued to grace British coinage for several centuries — until it was redesigned just a few years ago.
Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
(from the British patriotic song “Rule, Britannia!” based on the poem by James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740)
Finally, there was once the British Empire. This was made up of the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the UK. At its height, under the reign of Queen Victoria, it was the largest empire in history, and for over a century it was the foremost global power. “The empire on which the sun never sets” described the extent of its expanse at one time, such that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.