GB, England and the UK

Sorry about the geography lesson, but it’s needed. And it’s Sunday, so I’ve got time to write out all the details…
We’re all supposed to know better, and even the natives (well, English and Americans at any rate) can be a bit lax with the way the terms are used in everyday speech. But if you’re writing formal documents or websites or whatever, there’s no excuse for not getting the terminology correct.

Right. The term Great Britain has nothing to do with delusions of grandeur or a history as a superpower. It’s just the geographical name for the biggest island in the group, in the same way as Gran Canaria or Grand Cayman.

  • the egregious error that can be offensive to some people (i.e. Scots and Welsh) is using England and English to refer to the whole. Just like Friezen don’t like being called Hollanders, but more so
  • Great Britain is a geographical entity comprising mainland England, Scotland and Wales. But not Northern Ireland, and most definitely not the Republic
  • that’s why the sovereign country, the UK, is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The island of Ireland is not and has never been part of Great Britain
  • as a geopolitical entity, for convenience, the term Great Britain also covers islands belonging to those three countries that don’t have separate government arrangements (Shetlands and Scillies, for instance – whereas for example the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands do have their own rules and no MPs)
  • the British Isles are also a geographical entity, including the island of Ireland and the Isle of Man and so forth. Not a term that you’re ever really likely to need (or one that the Irish are particularly fond of)…
  • …but, maybe as a result, the term British is widely used as the demonym for the UK, e.g. British citizenship. That’s acceptable
  • if Scotland gets independence, of course, this post will have to be completely rewritten…

There’s some dispute about whether “Great” referred originally to the biggest island or to distinguish it from Lesser Britain – Brittany or Bretagne in northern France.

Prevalence: moderate. But worth listing here nonetheless, because you can genuinely annoy people by getting it wrong.
Frequency: moderate. In particular, using England and English to refer to the whole country. And that’s the big one to avoid.
Native: sometimes. Yes, the English certainly do occasionally offend the Scots and Welsh that way. Sports teams are widely referred to as GB (in part because Northern Irish athletes can choose whether to represent GB or Ireland).

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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