What is the difference between Britain, England, and the United Kingdom?

Good question: what are the differences between the terms "Britain", "England", and "The United Kingdom"? I was asked this question twice recently, so I hit Wikipedia. Take a painkiller and read on. Text in bold represents the usage of a term that is accompanied by an explanation or definition.

Geographically, to the north of Europe there is a group of islands known collectively as the British Isles (not to be confused with the British Islands, more on that later). The group consists of numerous small islands, a large island called Ireland (not to be confused with the country Ireland) and very large island called Great Britain (not to be confused with Britain).

Politically, the island group has several different independent nation-states: Ireland (which covers over 80% of the land area of the island Ireland), the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (which covers just about everything else), and three Crown Dependencies (self-governing possessions of the aforementioned UK). The country Ireland is pretty much continuous land and although it is divided into distinct counties, the Republic of Ireland (the official description of the state, not its name) is centrally governed and united (disregarding religious political issues). The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of the very large island Great Britain, the northern fifth of the island Ireland, and all the remaining smaller islands with the exception of those occupied by the Crown Dependencies. The Crown Dependencies consist of the Bailiwick of Jersey (several small islands off the coast of France), the Bailiwick of Guernsey (a few more islands just a bit north of Jersey), and the Isle of Man (an island lying between Ireland and Great Britain). The UK of GB and NI, together with the Crown Dependencies, make up the British Islands (not to be confused with the British Isles, I've already warned you).

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as the name implies, is a union of independent countries with a common head of state. England, the largest of the countries, covers about 60% of the land area of Great Britain plus a few smaller islands. Scotland occupies another 30% of Great Britain plus hundreds of smaller and medium-sized islands. Wales makes up for the remaining 10% or so of Great Britain's land mass. Northern Ireland lies in the northern part of the island Ireland, and shares a long land border with the Republic of Ireland (as previously mentioned, this term is actually the official description of the country whose official name is simply the ambiguous name Ireland).

Although the term "Britain" can generally (and incorrectly) refer to the United Kingdom, in the strictest sense the term should only be used to refer to the British Isles or Great Britain itself. The word stems from the word Britannia, itself derived from Pretannia, which is how the Greeks called the area where the Preteni people lived. The Preteni people, if they existed at all, were understood to have populated Great Britain and possibly some of the neighboring islands. The term "British" should therefore only be used to describe that which is associated with the British Isles. However, it is more often used as an adjective to replace the lengthy "associated with or derived from United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its Crown Dependencies". Even worse, the term "English" is often incorrectly used as a synonym for "British". Though to be honest, even now that I know the true meaning of the term, I will continue to use it incorrectly in a principle that will no doubt be termed Dotan's Razor long after my death: An insignificant inaccuracy can save a lengthy explanation.

If you are not confused yet, then note that the term "British Isles" is considered offensive in the country Ireland, where British dominance is a controversial subject. Therefore, in that country the islands are collectively known as "Northwest European Archipelago", "Anglo-Celtic Isles", "West European Isles", or "Islands of the North Atlantic". Be careful to use the correct term, depending upon who you are talking to.

Date Published: 2008-08-20
Date Revised: 2012-11-03 - Special thanks to Eileen de Bruin for grammatical corrections.



 


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