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West Brit

Q From Simon Barron: Do you know the correct use of the term West Brit used in Ireland?

A It’s a term that’s so deeply entrenched in the centuries of Irish attitudes to Britain that it almost requires a book to sort out its subtleties for somebody who doesn’t know the historical background.

In the Republic of Ireland today, it’s definitely derogatory. In its least insulting sense it refers to an Irish person who has sympathies for the UK or who takes his cultural and social cues from Britain. If you were being polite, you might instead call such a person an Anglophile. The term is applied in particular to Protestant Dubliners who have liberal attitudes to moral issues.

It’s an abbreviation of West Briton. In that spelling, it has been around since the early nineteenth century. To start with, it was borrowed from the equivalent term applied by the English to a Scot, a North Briton (the country being North Britain), terms that are thankfully obsolete, since Scots so often heard a patronising tone in them. (At one time, West Briton could also be used for a Welsh person, though this is long since defunct; to judge from the title of a newspaper in Truro, the West Briton, it was once a term for the Cornish, too.)

The term West Briton evolved in meaning in the period of the partition struggles of the early twentieth century that led to the creation of the Irish Republic. A West Briton then was a person who favoured the retention of a close association with Great Britain and was against the establishment of the Republic. You can get a flavour from James Joyce’s Dubliners, published in 1914: “Perhaps he ought not to have answered her like that. But she had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke”. West Briton remains a favourite insult of members of the Republican movement, who sometimes use it for somebody who is seen as retaining a subservient attitude to the UK.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Mar. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 10 March 2004.