Q&A: Britain vs England vs The United Kingdom

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, were happy and glooorious…

Q: Hey AWC, England has been in the news a lot lately.

A: Do you mean the Britain?

Q: Maybe? Actually, I always get confused with what to call that part of the world. There seems to be so many names for the same thing. Can you help?

A: We can. And you’ll be pleased to know that they all have slightly different meanings. 

Q: Phew.

A: It’s probably worth starting with “Britain” because this one perhaps has the most related words – such as being “British” or “Rule Britannia”.

Q: And Britannica? My parents still have their complete set in the front living room that is only for guests.

A: No, not that. The word “Britannica” is simply Latin-ified from the 1640s adjective “britannic” to give us the “British encyclopaedia” – not really related to this discussion. Although in the past, it was where you’d have to go to look this kind of stuff up.

Q: Okay, so let’s remove the “C” and look at “Britannia” then.

A: It goes back to the Roman conquest in the 1st century AD/BCE. They named modern day England and Wales “Britannia”, the people “britons” and then built Hadrian’s Wall to divide it from “Caledonia” – which is more or less modern Scotland.

Q: More or less?

A: Yeah, because the border has changed a bit over time. Anyway, in the 2nd century, Britannia was personified as a seated female warrior with a trident and a shield. When the Roman Empire fizzled out soon after, so too did Britannia, only to be rebooted in the 18th century as a mascot of national Empire-building identity – culminating in the 1740 song, Rule, Britannia!

Q: So, if you’re “British”, where are you actually from?

A: Good question. These days, to be British is to be a citizen of the United Kingdom (UK). This means that you live in either England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Of course, when they came up with the word (in the 1600s), the idea of the UK was a few centuries away, hence it was used to describe an inhabitant of “Great Britain”.

Q: Okay, so we now have “Great Britain”. What’s its story?

A: Great Britain is the name of the actual island that contains England, Wales and Scotland. It was originally known as “Albion” in pre-Roman times, then simply “Britain” and finally upgrading to “Great Britain” in the 1400s. 

Q: Why did it add “Great”?

A: It was mainly to distinguish itself from “Brittany” on the French side – home to refugees who had fled after William the Conqueror invaded in 1066. To differentiate itself from Great Britain, Brittany was also known as “Little Britain” at the time. Make sense?

Q: Computer says no.

A: Why not?

Q: Well you said that to be “British” was to be a citizen of the United Kingdom. So, where does that fit in?

A: The United Kingdom in its original form didn’t come along until 1801 – by which time the word “British” was already enjoying a world tour courtesy of the British Empire. Its full name (since 1927), by the way, is actually the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. It’s a sovereign country, known simply as the United Kingdom, with its flag being the Union Jack.

Q: Who was Jack?

A: Not a person. A “jack” is the name of a small flag of nationality flown at the bow of a ship. In the 1600s, the “Union Jack” was created after the original unification of England and Scotland – a mixing of the crosses of St Andrew and St George (later adding St Patrick in 1801 when Ireland joined up and the true UK began.)

Q: So the United Kingdom spans across two islands?

A: That’s right – all of the large island of Great Britain and part of the island of Ireland. 

Q: Wait, isn’t Ireland a country?

A: Geographically, the island itself is called “Ireland” (or “Éire” by the Irish) – comprising the countries of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, throughout the 20th century, the geopolitical lines were blurred and “Ireland” today can be officially used to describe solely the Republic of Ireland, which occupies more than 80% of the island anyway. 

Q: What’s the collective name for the whole thing?

A: All 6000 or so big and small islands are known geographically as the “British Isles”. Within this, you have the biggest island of Great Britain – containing England, Scotland and Wales – and the next biggest island of Ireland, which contains Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (or just Ireland).

Q: My head hurts.

A: Yeah it’s a lot to take in.

Q: So, hang on. Where exactly is “Britain” then?

A: These days, “Britain” itself isn’t really a set place – it’s more of an identity or legacy brand. It is often used interchangeably to describe both Great Britain and the United Kingdom.

Q: Okay, so let me recap. Geographically speaking, just looking at landmasses from space, you have the British Isles – a group of 6000 or so islands off the coast of mainland Europe.

A: Yep.

Q: The biggest of these “isles” is the island of Great Britain. Next to that is the island of Ireland.

A: That’s right.

Q: Okay, now for the political stuff. The “United Kingdom” (sometimes also just “Britain” or “UK”) is a sovereign country that uniquely contains four smaller countries within it – England, Wales and Scotland (on the island of Great Britain) and Northern Ireland (on the top part of Ireland).

A: Yeah, that’s right. Often on the world stage, they band together – such as for global trade or competing in the Olympics – which to confuse matters, they compete as “Great Britain” or “Team GB”.

Q: But we just established that Great Britain is NOT a political name – it’s just the name of the island! That name would exclude Northern Ireland, right?

A: Thankfully there is an explanation. Apparently the name registered with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is actually “The Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic Team” – but that’s not very catchy, so it’s usually written instead as “Great Britain” or “Team GB”. Yet another inconsistency.

Q: What a mess.

A: The whole thing is indeed rather messy. For example, when it suits them – such as at the Commonwealth Games or the FIFA World Cup, each constituent country will compete separately as England, Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland. They also each have their own parliament, which can further complicate matters.

Q: Example?

A: Brexit. In 2016 when the UK voted to leave the EU, a closer look at Scotland’s votes saw that THEIR population had voted to stay – yet of course they had to go along with the UK’s total vote. Scotland has also held votes on whether to gain independence (like Ireland did in 1921) in the past, but so far, unsuccessfully.

Q: Maybe they should find some magical stones and magically transport themselves somewhere else on the planet?

A: Are you now just doing Outlander fan fiction?

Q: Yeah, pretty much.

A: Probably the one big piece of advice is to never refer to the UK simply as “England” – this is similar to when we talked about people using “Holland” for the Netherlands, which we discussed previously.

Q: Fair enough. I think I’ll just stick to calling them “poms”

A: Actually, “poms” is distinctly Australian, referring to arriving immigrants from England. A false origin is that it stood for “prisoner of Mother England” – but in fact it stemmed from the 1800s term “jimmy grant” (for immigrants) which by 1912 was linked to the pomegranate fruit as “pommygrants” and eventually “pommy” or “pom”. The term “whingeing pom” dates from 1962, and it’s sometimes seen as a negative term – although most use it in a friendly informal way.

Q: Wow, who knew?

A: We did. Another word often used by the British themselves is “Blighty”. This came from the days of the Raj – the British occupation of India. The word was thought to have come from the Urdu word “vilāyatī” meaning “foreign”. But instead of going negative, during World War I, it actually became entrenched in the trenches as an affectionate name chosen by soldiers pining for home – missing their beloved “Blighty”.

Q: Cor blimey guv’nor! Well this has been fun, me old china plate. I better head down those apples and pears and get on my clever mike and head back to the old rat and mouse – the trouble and strife will be worried!

A: Please never do that again.

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