What does ‘Britain’ mean?

‘Britain’, ‘Great Britain’ and ‘the United Kingdom’ do not all mean the same thing.

What does Britain mean? Diagram showing the geographical and political relationships between the British Isles (including Ireland) United Kingdom, Great Britain and Crown Dependencies.

Britain is an island in the North Atlantic, off the coast of western Europe.  The island contains the nations of England, Wales, and Scotland.  The three nations together form a political entity, Great Britain, which also includes several islands belonging to those nations.  ‘Great Britain’ is commonly and conveniently abbreviated to simply ‘Britain’, but both terms are confusingly used in a geographical as well as a political sense.

The nations of Great Britain are part of a sovereign state which includes the province of Northern Ireland.  This is the United Kingdom, or ‘UK’ – full name ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Each constituent part of the UK has its own form of devolved government, except England.  The inhabitants of Britain and 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.

So, what does ‘Britain’ mean?  Where does the name ‘Britain’ come from?

It is uncertain what Britain was called before the Romans.  One theory is that the name derives from the Phoenician baratanic, the land of tin, contracted into B’ratan. The Greeks referred to Cassiterides (tin islands), which possibly meant the whole British Isles, but the location of the Cassiterides is unknown.  However, the more accepted explanation seems to be that, in the 4th century BC, the Greeks referred to one of the islands in the archipelago as Pretannike, which came from a Celtic word, Pretani that probably meant ‘painted people’, and the ‘p’ became a ‘b’.

Just to confuse things further, another name for Britain in classical times was Albion, which may stem from a pre-Celtic Indo-European word albho meaning ‘white’, a possible reference to the cliffs along England’s southern coastline.  However, the Romans, presumably taking their lead from the Greek Pretannike, called present day England and Wales collectively Britannia – a Roman province, and the name stuck.  They could not call it 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.

Great Britain was originally 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.  See how easy this is?

Great Britain is also the name given to the two kingdoms of England (capital London), including the principality of Wales (capital Cardiff), and Scotland (capital Edinburgh).  This dates from the time when King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England (and Wales) and, being very proud of the fact, wanted to be known as King of Great Britain, the whole island.

Britain the island is the largest of a geographical group of about 6,000 islands, the British Isles.  This includes the island of Ireland, which contains the sovereign state of Ireland as well as the UK province of Northern Ireland.  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 physically closer to France than Britain and arguably not part of the British Isles).

To recap, then:

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


United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, map, union jack, union flag.Then, of course, there’s the tricky business of who the British people really are.

The Roman writer, Tacitus, said:

“Who the first inhabitants of Britain were, whether natives or immigrants, remains obscure; one must remember we are dealing with barbarians.”

The 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius believed that, in addition to English and Frisians, “Britain was inhabited by the souls of the dead who were ferried thither across the Channel and that the climate north of the Roman Wall was so pestilential that only serpents could live there.” (Peter Hunter Blair, ‘An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England’.)

Contrary to propaganda, the British people are hybrids, products of successive waves of invaders – Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxon-Jute-Frisian, Danes, Norse and Norman.  Broadly speaking, and tongue in cheek, the Scots were originally from Ireland; the English were from Germany; the Welsh came from England; the Irish came from Spain (maybe) and Scotland.  Since the Norman invasion of 1066, they have been joined through the centuries by more folk from Scandinavia, France, Holland, Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa, India, Pakistan, China, Poland etc etc.  It’s quite straightforward…

Find more information about British people.

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