The difference between Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and the British Isles
History & Classics  
indiatimes

…and how to talk about them without offending people

 

The history of Britain and Ireland is long, complicated and horribly messy, and as a result, lots of people get the words that describe the region mixed up.
 
As well as being inaccurate, misusing these words can cause a lot of offence, so it’s important to use them right. Here is a brief description of how these words are used, and how you can use them without upsetting anyone.
 
The UK
 
 
The UK, or “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, is the Sovereign state composed of the constituent countries of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The adjective for the UK is “British”.
 
Important note: It’s worth remembering that not everyone within the UK identifies as British. In Scotland, many people see themselves as only Scottish, while in Northern Ireland, many people identify entirely as Irish, not British. Both regions have major separatist movements, so this is a sensitive topic for a lot of people. This is also true, albeit to a lesser extent, in Wales, where a many people identify as Welsh but not British, and even the English county of Cornwall, where there is a growing movement towards Cornish nationalism.
 
As always, it’s best to respect people’s identities, so be careful who you call “British”, in case they strongly identify as something else. And perhaps even more importantly, don’t call non-English people English!
 
Great Britain
 
 
Great Britain is the big island. As a geographic term, it includes all of mainland England, Scotland, and Wales. Politically, this is expanded out to include all the smaller islands of those countries too.
 
Britain
 
Britain is a more ambiguous term:
 
Politically it is often used as a short, informal name for the United Kingdom. Which, since the UK is “British”, makes sense. It has been used this way by politicians and scholars for a long time.
 
However, it is also sometimes used as short for “Great Britain”, which can get very confusing. This means either of the maps above could represent Britain. For this reason, this word is avoided in most official settings, in favour of “United Kingdom” (for the country) or “Great Britain” (for the island).
 
Ireland
 
 
The Republic of Ireland is not part of the UK, but worth including here because it is very entangled in this mess of names and identities.
 
Ireland, like “Britain”, has 2 different meanings depending on context.
 
Ireland geographically is an island, that includes the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
 
Ireland politically a sovereign nation entirely independent of the UK. To differentiate it from the island of Ireland, it is can be called the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is not part of the Republic of Ireland.
 
“Irish” refers to anybody from the island who identifies as Irish, including those in Northern Ireland. 
Northern Irish people have the option to claim Irish citizenship, get Irish passports, and play for Irish national sports teams.

 

The British Isles
 
 
The British Isles is a term that has historically been used by the British to describe all of Britain, Ireland, and the neighbouring islands. This includes the Isle of Man, and often the Channel Islands, both of which are properties of the British crown (but not part of the UK). However, the Channel Islands are not part of the same archipelago, and their frequent inclusion in “The British Isles” is a hint that the term is not a purely geographical one.
 
This term has a political aspect that many people see as very problematic.
 
The use of “the British Isles” was popularised by (you guessed it) the British, when Britain was in the process of conquering and dominating Ireland, as a way to justify British rule of Ireland.  For centuries, Ireland was a reluctant part of the UK, and the site of many atrocities and oppressions by the British government and army. In 1921, the Irish finally won a long and bloody war for independence from the British, and became their own nation, politically independent of Britain. People from the Republic of Ireland are not British in any way, and using terms that imply they are is understandably not well received by Irish folk. The term is also rejected by the Irish government.
 
In the vast majority of cases, you can replace “British Isles” with “Britain and Ireland”, without causing any confusion of meaning. If you want to be clear that you are counting the Isle of Man and Channel Islands, you could go with something like “The British Islands and Ireland” or “The British and Irish Isles”. Again, perfectly clear meanings. There are even some fun-sounding (if more obscure) alternatives like “The Anglo-Celtic Isles” or “the Pretanic Isles”. All of these options have the important bonus of not being an insult to Irish people, and the many thousands of people who lost their lives so Ireland could stop being “British”. I’d love to see the term “British Isles” die out in my lifetime, and I will be avoiding that term in all my posts about Britain and Ireland.
 
So, there we go, a brief explanation of what all these confusing terms mean, and how to use them without offending anyone!
 
Here’s an even briefer one if that was too much:
 
UK = England + Wales + Scotland + Northern Ireland
 
Great Britain = England + Wales + Scotland
 
British = of the UK
 
Britain = UK [or] GB
 
Ireland = Republic of Ireland [or] ROI + Northern Ireland
 

 
 


 
 


 
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