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Rules, Britannia

It’s important to get the names of the various bits of our British islands and their inhabitants right. You would know exactly why if you had seen the face of my former business partner whenever someone implied he was English. An expression combining fury, frustration and resignation would briefly appear, like a small cloud across the sun. He was born in Glasgow, educated in Edinburgh and would firmly describe himself as Scottish. However, in his passport he is officially termed a “British citizen”, whose country is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, whom “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State” requests, in fine archaic terms, be assisted. These are good indicators of the difficulties of accurate and acceptable description.

The official name for our country is indeed The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a pretty horrible mouthful, though accurate enough in a nit-picking way. Though it had been employed earlier, the term Great Britain was first used formally in 1604, when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England; it was adopted as the official name of the country on the union of the two countries in 1707. This name sounds grandiloquent or bombastic but it isn’t really. It derives ultimately from Britannia major, the name given to Britain in the fifth century to distinguish it from Armorica, Britannia minor, and so it is a simple descriptor. It referred only to the main island, comprising the kingdoms of Scotland and England (which by then also included Wales, these two countries having formally joined in 1536, though Wales had been a principality since 1284). When Ireland became part of the Union in 1801, the nation started to be called The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, but was changed again to its present form on the partition of Ireland in 1922.

Troubles start when foreigners (or ignorant English) call all of us English or the country England. This infuriates many Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish people. The problem is that we have no adjective meaning “inhabitant of the United Kingdom”. Though we could imitate Frank Lloyd Wright and call ourselves “Ukonians”, we never have, because the word is as ugly to British ears as the original is to our friends across the Atlantic, and the adjective British has to make do. The use of the word English as a generic adjective for the whole of the UK is regarded as dismissive and denigratory by most inhabitants of the other three parts of the kingdom, who are jealous of their historical status and regret what many see as the cultural and economic imperialism of England. This is accentuated by the capital’s position down in the bottom right-hand corner of England, which gives so many commentators, legislators and civil servants a skewed view of the country.

In part, this tendency to use England as an inclusive term is a relic of the time when the kingdom was indeed called England: Shakespeare’s “Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’ ” was correct at the time. However, many have continued to use the term incorrectly until this century, particularly in poetic or elevated contexts. “England expects every man will do his duty” Nelson signalled, not “Britain expects ...”; “There’ll always be an England” comes from a much more recent conflict. George V was quoted as saying “Wake up, England”, though the solecism came from the person who used the phrase as the title of the printed version of his speech, not him; on the other hand, he, as monarchs before and after, was commonly referred to as the king “of England”.

The term Great Britain is a geographical term as well as a political one, comprising not only the biggest island, but also many of the smaller ones in the group which are considered to be part of England, Wales and Scotland. These include the Scilly Isles, the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. But the Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Alderney) are not part of Britain, and nor is the Isle of Man. For historical reasons these are not even part of the UK, being regarded as possessions of the Crown rather than integral parts of the country, as a result of which, to take an example, the Queen is called Duke of Normandy in Guernsey. If you want to refer to the whole island group you should call it the British Isles.

So what do you call an inhabitant of these islands? If you don’t know, or want to be inclusive, use British. If you know which part of the country they come from, particularly if it is one of the bits around the edge, use Welsh or Scots as appropriate. (Never Scotch, if you value your linguistic credibility: Scotch is a type of strong liquor, and the word has one or two other fixed uses, such as in Scotch egg or Scotch mist, but it is never now used in any other context; the general adjective is Scottish, and it is correct to say that a person is Scottish or that he or she is a Scot.) An older term is Briton (as in “Britons never will be slaves”, and “North Briton” for a Scot) but this is now virtually defunct except in some set phrases and as a conveniently short word for newspaper headlines. The Americans (sorry, “inhabitants of the United States of America” — other countries have similar problems) once took a fancy to calling us Britishers, which the British hated, but the word has now thankfully gone out of use. Many expatriates call themselves Brits, either defiantly or in mock humility, I’m never sure which; the term has never really caught on inside the UK and still feels slangy to many people (though Britpop was briefly fashionable and Brit turns up also in Britpacker and some other slangy compounds).

Though British is a useful inclusive term for the Scots, the Welsh and the English, it is strictly incorrect to use it to refer to those million plus people living in Northern Ireland, as Ireland has never historically been part of Britain (the Romans called the parts they controlled Britannia, but then the Romans never conquered Ireland; the Queen may indeed be Her Britannic Majesty but that is just an archaism, dating from a time before Ireland joined the Union). However, usage here has been deeply influenced by political considerations linked to Republicanism and Unionism; people in Northern Ireland who feel a strong association with the UK and wish to remain part of it will usually refer to themselves as British; to describe them as Irish may be perceived as insulting and is certainly incorrect, since Irish refers to citizens of the Irish Republic.

If you work in the Province, as that area is commonly called, you have to be careful to talk about Northern Ireland, or informally The North (The South being a common term in Northern Ireland for the Republic of Ireland) and to call the whole country the UK. Though it is often done, the term Ulster should not be used as a synonym for the political division called Northern Ireland, as the latter includes only six of the nine counties which formed the Irish province of that name (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone); the other three (Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan) are now in the Republic.

Though some people use the term Union to refer to the UK as a whole, as I did earlier, be warned that this is a politically-charged word in some circles, particularly Northern Ireland (Unionists wish to preserve the political union of Northern Ireland with the remainder of the UK). Just to add a slight additional complication, since the European Union began to be so called, many commentators are confusingly now using Union to refer to that entity as well.

As a result of these issues, we are stuck with inappropriate abbreviations. The official international symbol for the UK is GB, so our cars are labelled GB when we go abroad, and the international symbol for the pound sterling is GBP. At least we have succeeded in changing the old Internet national domain from GB to UK.

Step warily: it’s a linguistic morass.

Page created 17 Aug. 1996
Last updated 1 Jun. 2005

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/gb.htm
Last modified: 1 June 2005.