What does ‘Britain’ mean?

United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, map, union jack, union flag.‘Britain’, ‘Great Britain’ and ‘the United Kingdom’ do not all mean the same thing.

The “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” consists of four, distinct, countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Each country has its own form of devolved government, except England, and they are all governed centrally by the Government of the United Kingdom (UK).  The inhabitants of the UK should be generally referred to as ‘British’, or specifically from their UK country of origin – eg ‘Welsh’.  To refer to all the inhabitants as ‘English’ or the whole place as ‘England’ can seriously upset people, apart from possibly the English (who don’t really care).

Contrary to propaganda, the British people are hybrids.  Broadly speaking, the Scots were originally from Ireland; the English were from Germany; the Welsh came from England; the Irish came from Spain (probably) and Scotland.  They have been joined through the centuries by folk from Scandinavia, France, Holland, the Caribbean, Africa, India, Pakistan, China, Poland etc etc.  It’s quite straightforward.

Great Britain is an island lying off the western coast of Europe, comprising the main territory of the United Kingdom.  The island consists of England, Wales and Scotland.  It is called ‘Great’ in the sense of ‘greater’ to distinguish it from ‘lesser’ (ie ‘smaller’), or Little Britain’ – Brittany in what is now France  – not because its people are in any way superior, or the place much, much nicer than anywhere else.  Though we are and it is, of course… But, should you read the Roman/Greek writer Ptolemy (not currently on the best seller list), you might find that he also referred to Ireland as Little Britain.

To simplify things even more, the British Isles includes three dependencies of the British Crown – the Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey (though the latter are geographically closer to France than the UK).

Great Britain is also the official name given to the two kingdoms of England (capital London), including the principality of Wales (capital Cardiff), and Scotland (capital Edinburgh).

Therefore, Great Britain is both a political and geographical term which describes the combination of England and Wales with Scotland, the three nations which together include all the land on the largest island – and some of the smaller ones too.

The name Britain goes back at least to Roman times when they called England and Wales collectively “Britannia” – a Roman province.  They could not call them England and Wales, because England and Wales had not been invented – and neither had Scotland.  But the Romans never ruled Scotland, or fully conquered it.  That might be because they called it Caledonia.

So, technically, Britain means just England and Wales.  However, the term is widely used to refer to the whole island of Great Britain.  To recap, then:

  • Britain means England and Wales, but people usually assume the term includes Scotland too.  And sometimes Northern Ireland.
  • Great Britain means England, Wales and Scotland.
  • The United Kingdom means England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • The inhabitants are called British – or specifically their country of origin (ie English, Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish) – but don’t get this wrong.