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Terminology of the British Isles

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  Geographic-only locations.
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The various terms used to describe the different (and sometimes overlapping) geographical and political areas of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and surrounding islands are often a source of confusion, partly owing to the similarity between some of the actual words used, but also because they are often used loosely. The purpose of this article is to explain the meanings of and inter-relationships among those terms.

In brief, the main terms and their simple explanations are as follows.

  • Geographical terms
    • The British Isles is an archipelago consisting of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and many smaller surrounding islands.
    • Great Britain, including England, Scotland, and Wales, sometimes simply called Britain, is the largest island of the archipelago and lies directly north of France. (The term Britain is more commonly used as a political term: an alternative name for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.)
    • Ireland is the second largest island of the archipelago and lies directly to the west of Great Britain.
    • The full list of islands in the British Isles includes some 6,000 islands, of which 51 have an area larger than 20 km².
  • Political terms
    • The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the sovereign state occupying the island of Great Britain, the small nearby islands (but not the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands), and the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland. Usually, it is shortened to United Kingdom, UK or Britain.
    • Ireland is the sovereign state occupying the larger portion of the island of Ireland. To disambiguate it from the island of Ireland, it is often called the "Republic of Ireland" or, when speaking in the context of Irish politics, simply the Republic, in order to distinguish it from "Northern Ireland", despite the fact that the country's constitution names the country simply Ireland. Occasionally an approximation to its gaelic name Éire will be used in an English language context to distinguish it from "Northern Ireland", even though the word "Éire" directly translates as "Ireland".
    • England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the constituent countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
    • England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are legal jurisdictions within the United Kingdom.
    • Great Britain means the countries of England, Wales and Scotland considered as a unit. The term Great Britain is often used (incorrectly) as synonymous with the UK. However, the UK and Great Britain are not equivalent since the UK is a state formed from the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
    • Britain is widely used as a political synonym for the United Kingdom.
    • British Islands consists of the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. These are the states within the British Isles that have the British monarch as head of state.
    • GB is the ISO 3166 code for the United Kingdom.
  • Linguistic terms
    • The United Kingdom and the (Republic of) Ireland are sometimes referred to as nations and countries in formal documents while England, Wales, Scotland and (to a lesser extent) Northern Ireland are also referred to as nations and countries. In everyday language the terms nation and country are used almost interchangeably.
    • British is the correct adjective pertaining to the United Kingdom; for example, a citizen of the UK is both officially and colloquially described as a British citizen.
    • Wales is also known as the Principality; Northern Ireland can also be referred to, by those of a unionist persuasion, as the Province, in relation to its locality within the Province of Ulster.
  • Sport
    • The constituent countries of the United Kingdom often compete separately in international competition as nations (and are often described as "the home nations"). For example in association football, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England play as nations and are officially referred to as nations. An additional complication is that in some sports, such as rugby union, players from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland play as one team, Ireland, in international competitions.
    • Rugby players from both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom play for British and Irish Lions representing the four "Home Unions" of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
    • Great Britain is often used to mean United Kingdom. Usually this is simply sloppy language, but it is sometimes used as an official shortening of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For example, at the Olympic Games, the team officially called "Great Britain" represents the political entity the United Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland. The "Ireland" Olympic team represents the whole island of Ireland, a geographical entity. Athletes from Northern Ireland have the choice of participating in either the "Great Britain" team or the "Ireland" team .
    • In the majority of individual sports (e.g. tennis and athletics), at international level competitors are identified as GB if they are from Great Britain or Northern Ireland. A small number of sports (e.g. golf) identify participants as representing their constituent country. The Commonwealth Games is the only competition where all parts of the British Islands compete as separate nations. It should be noted that the Republic of Ireland does not participate in the Commonwealth Games as it is not part of the Commonwealth of Nations.

At a glance

Below is a visual reference guide to some of the main concepts and territories described in this article:

Terminology in detail

  • England and Wales Is a political and administrative term referring to the two home countries of England and Wales, which share the same legal system. Between 1746 and 1967 the term "England" did legally include Wales.
  • The historical United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is Great Britain plus Ireland, for the period 1801 to 1922, although the name change after the secession/independence of most of Ireland only took place in 1927.
N.B.: While "United Kingdom" is normally abbreviated UK, the official ISO 3166 two-letter country code is GB and the three letter code is GBR (Ukraine has the two letter code UA and the three letter code UKR). Due to a pre-existing convention originating in the JANET academic computer network, the UK's Internet top-level domain is .uk, a break from the normal practice of following ISO 3166 (a .gb domain has also been used to a limited extent in the past but is now defunct). GB is used on car number plates to indicate the United Kingdom.
See also United Kingdom (disambiguation) for other united kingdoms and UK (disambiguation) for other meanings of the abbreviation.
  • Ireland (in Irish, Éire) refers, geographically, to the island of Ireland, or to any of the following:
  • The Kingdom of Ireland was Ireland for the period 1541-1801.
  • The Irish Republic was a unilaterally declared 32-county republic encompassing the entire island, during the period 1919-22. During this period, Ireland legally remained part of the UK and its independence was not recognised internationally except by Russia.
  • Southern Ireland was a proposed Home Rule 26-county state under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. It never came into practical existence, being superseded by:
  • The Irish Free State is Ireland excepting Northern Ireland during the period 1922-37.
The terms Irish Republic, Southern Ireland, the Irish Free State and Éire (in English-language texts) are used synonymously with the Republic of Ireland, although their use can cause offense if used inappropriately, especially Southern Ireland and the Irish Free State.
  • Ireland (in Irish, Éire) is the political entity consisting of the island of Ireland excepting Northern Ireland, 1937-present. This is the name of the state according to the Irish Constitution.
  • The Republic of Ireland a legal "description" of Ireland excepting Northern Ireland, 1949-present. This form is used where tact or disambiguity demands. It is also the name used by the international Association Football team.
  • Northern Ireland 1922-present. That part of the island of Ireland north of the line of partition of 1922, and which is still part of the United Kingdom. It is sometimes referred to as "the North of Ireland", "the six counties" or (in extremist usage) the "occupied six counties," especially by Irish Nationalists.
  • Ulster The name of one of Ireland's four traditional provinces. Officially the area contains the nine northernmost counties, six of which make up Northern Ireland, and three of which are part of the Republic of Ireland. It is often used by Unionists to refer to the smaller Northern Ireland. Though Ulster has not been a political entity since the ancient Gaelic provincial Kingdoms, it remains associated with a geographical area and is used in sporting and cultural contexts. See Ulster (disambiguation).
In sport
  • In Gaelic games, no distinction is recognised between the counties of the Republic and those of Northern Ireland. County teams play in their provincial championships (where the six counties of Ulster within Northern Ireland and three within the Republic all play in the Ulster championship) and the winners of these play in the All-Ireland championship (which has been recently complicated by the introduction of a back-door system). Even within Northern Ireland, a tricolour, the flag of the Republic of Ireland, is flown at all games. At bigger games, where an anthem is played, it is always the national anthem of the Republic. In the case of the International Rules series against Australia, an Irish national team is chosen from all thirty-two counties.
  • In Association Football, the teams correspond to political entities: Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In accordance with UEFA and FIFA's rules, each of these countries has its own football league: the Irish League and the League of Ireland respectively.
  • In rugby union, rugby league, field hockey , cricket, boxing, golf, athletics and others the Ireland team is drawn from the whole island (ie. both the Republic and Northern Ireland). Many sports organisations are subdivided along provincial lines e.g. Gaelic Athletic Association, golf.
  • The British Isles is a term used to mean the island of Great Britain plus the island of Ireland and many smaller surrounding islands, including the Isle of Man and, in some contexts, the Channel Islands (Guernsey and Jersey). See British Isles naming dispute for details of the conflict over use of this term.
  • Great Britain and Ireland, or variants like "Britain and Ireland" or "The UK and Ireland" are sometimes used as alternatives to the term British Isles.
  • Anglo-Celtic Isles is an alternative term (in limited use) for the geographic region comprising Britain & Ireland, more commonly referred to as the 'British Isles'. 'Anglo-Celtic Islands' is a derivative of this. It is intended as a geographic term free of any political implication and uses the macro-cultural grouping term Anglo-Celtic, referring to the peoples from which the majority of the island group's population are descended – the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts (it can also be inclusive of the Anglo-Normans).
  • Islands of the North Atlantic is another suggested replacement term for 'British Isles', without the same political connotations. However, its convolution and impracticality due to implying inclusion of fellow North Atlantic islands such as Iceland have made it unworkable and it has not come into common use. The term was used as part of the Strand 3 level of negotiations for the Belfast agreement. (Its acronym, IONA, is also the name of the small but historically important island of Iona off the coast of Scotland.)
  • British Islands (a legal term not in common usage) is the UK, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands.
  • Brittany, itself a corruption of 'Britain', and sometimes formerly known as 'Little Britain' is a historical Duchy in the West of France, now a French region; for this modern administrative sense, see Bretagne.

Geographical distinctions

The British Isles

British Isles all.svg

The British Isles is an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Continental Europe. It includes Ireland and Great Britain, and the Isle of Man, but usually excludes the Channel Islands. Also included are the thousands of small islands off the coast of both the larger islands such as Shetland and Orkney. The term is not universally accepted (see British Isles naming dispute)

Great Britain

Great Britain.svg Great Britain refers to the largest of the British Isles. The word "Great" simply means "larger" (no connection with "greatness" in other senses is intended) in contrast to Brittany, a historical term for a peninsula in modern France that largely corresponds with the present day French province of Bretagne. That region was settled by many British immigrants during the period of Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain, and named "Little Britain" by them. The French term "Bretagne" now refers to the French "Little Britain", not to the British "Great Britain", which in French is called Grande-Bretagne.


British Isles Scotland.svg The name Scotland specifically refers to a part of the island of Great Britain, the second largest constituent country of the UK occupying the Northern part of the island. Scotland borders England to the south of the country and is bounded by the North Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the East. Also included in the geographical territory are the hundreds of small islands off the coast of Scotland such as Eilean Siar, Shetland, Skye and Orkney.


British Isles England.svg The name England specifically refers to a part of the island of Great Britain, the largest constituent country of the UK occupying the south-eastern part of the island. The other constituent countries of Scotland and Wales are not in England, but border on it.


Island of Ireland.svg The second largest island in the archipelago is Ireland. Most of the island is in the Republic of Ireland. The north east of the island is in the United Kingdom. That Ireland is a part of the geographical "British Isles" does not mean that all of the island is politically "British", although the term British Isles has been described as "politically loaded".

Isle of Man

British Isles Isle of Man.svg The Isle of Man lies between Great Britain and Ireland. It is governed as a British Crown dependency, having its own parliament, but with the United Kingdom responsible for its defense and external relations.

Channel Islands

British Isles Channel Islands.svg Although the Channel Islands are associated with the United Kingdom politically as Crown dependencies, they are an outcrop of the nearby French mainland, and historically they are the last remaining parts of the former Duchy of Normandy.


British Isles Rockall.svg

The island of Rockall is a small, uninhabited islet lying some 301.4 km (187.3 miles) west of St Kilda (Outer Hebrides) and 424 km (229.1 miles) north-west of Ireland. It lies in the exclusive economic zone of the United Kingdom (as determined from the Isle of Harris), whilst its surrounding continental shelf (but not the island itself, which they ignore) is claimed by Ireland, Iceland and Denmark (through the Faroe Islands). The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, states Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf and consequently the EEZ of the United Kingdom does not extend further because of it. Continental shelf rights are negotiated independently of EEZ rights.

Political distinctions

The United Kingdom

British Isles United Kingdom.svg

A UK passport

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the official full title of the state. This name appears on official documentation such as British passports. For convenience, the name is usually shortened to United Kingdom, UK or Britain. Great Britain is also widely used as a synonym for the UK.

The United Kingdom is a sovereign state. Its four constituent countries are sometimes considered to be of different status. This view may be supported by the existence of devolved governments with different levels of power in Scotland and Wales (see Asymmetrical federalism). Due to historical precedent, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are countries and nations in their own right (although none of these is sovereign today). Wales is also a principality of the United Kingdom ( Prince of Wales is a title usually given to the heir apparent to the British throne). Northern Ireland is sometimes described by United Kingdom citizens as a province of the United Kingdom, which derives from the Irish province of Ulster, which Northern Ireland is part of. This epithet is also applied because it originally was part of the UK as part of Ireland rather than as a constituent country or nation in its own right. Northern Ireland also had, until 1972, a far greater degree of self-government than the other constituent parts of the UK.

Great Britain is both a geographical and a political entity. Geographically, it is one island, but politically it also contains the islands that belong to its constituent nations - England, Wales and Scotland (most notably England's Isle of Wight, Wales' Anglesey and Scotland's Inner Hebrides, Outer Hebrides, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands).

The abbreviation GB is sometimes officially used for the United Kingdom, for example in the Olympics, or as the vehicle registration plate country identification code for UK-registered cars (see also British car number plates). The GB code is not always accepted, and unofficial alternatives are sometimes used for protest (such as SCO in Scotland, NI in Northern Ireland, or ENG for England).

The internet code " .gb", although allocated to the UK, is unused and UK web domains use " .uk".

The four constituent parts of the UK are also known to some as Home Nations or the "Four Nations". The BBC refers to its UK-wide broadcasting operation as Nations and Regions ("regions" referring to the Regions of England). Thus the UK naming conventions tend towards describing four distinct nations which exist within a single sovereign state.

In sport, the UK Nations mostly have their own separate national teams - England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, for example in football. Sporting contests between the Four Nations are known as "Home internationals" (an example is the British Home Championship in football).

The governing body for football in Northern Ireland is called the Irish Football Association, having been in existence since some forty years before partition. Its counterpart in the Republic (plus Derry City FC) is the Football Association of Ireland. The Northern Ireland national team retained the name "Ireland" for some fifty years after partition. Since around 1970 the two teams have been consistently referred to as "Northern Ireland" and "Republic of Ireland" respectively.

However, in Rugby Union, the four Home Nations are England, Ireland (the whole island, i.e. the Republic of Ireland plus Northern Ireland), Scotland and Wales.

UK teams in the Olympics have competed under several different names - most recently in Athens the athletes were presented at the Opening Ceremony under a banner which said simply Great Britain, rather than the full Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Olympic athletes from Northern Ireland may choose whether to represent the UK or the Republic of Ireland.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, and the subsequent implementation legislation, sporting organisation (and several other organisations, e.g. tourism, Irish Gaelic and Ulster Scots language boards) on the island of Ireland has increasingly been cross-border.

Citizens of the UK are called British or Britons. The term Brits may also be used, sometimes pejoratively, for example by supporters of Scottish independence when referring to supporters of the Union. Some older slang names for Britons are Tommy (for British soldiers), Anglo and Limey. Anglo properly refers only to England, but it is sometimes used as a broader reference as an element in compound adjectives: for example, "Anglo-French relations" may be used in newspaper articles when referring to relations between the political entities France and the United Kingdom. Anglo-Saxon may be used when referring to the whole English-speaking world, the Anglosphere, although ethnically very few of the world's one thousand million English-speakers are of Anglo-Saxon origin.


Republic of Ireland.svg

A Republic of Ireland passport

Since the adoption of the Constitution of Ireland in 1937, Ireland has been the constitutional name of the state which covers approximately five-sixths of the island of Ireland. (Northern Ireland covers the remaining sixth of the island, in its north-east. Northern Ireland remains a constituent part of the United Kingdom.)

Since the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, the term "Republic of Ireland" is the term used as the additional description of the state. This term is useful in avoiding ambiguity between the name of the island and the name of the state. However, the term "Ireland" is always used in formal diplomatic contexts such as the European Union or the United Nations. The passport of the Republic of Ireland bears the name Éire - Ireland.

Before the introduction of the 1937 constitution and the new name, the Irish Free State occupied the same territory as the modern state of Ireland. The Irish Free State became an autonomous dominion of the British Empire in 1922 when it seceded from the United Kingdom through the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The King ceased to be its Head of State in 1936 and the state ceased to be a Dominion and left the Commonwealth in 1948.

Traditionally, the island of Ireland is divided into four provinces - Leinster, Connacht, Munster and Ulster, with each of the provinces further divided into counties. The Republic of Ireland takes up 83% of the island, and twenty-six of the thirty-two traditional counties of Ireland. Northern Ireland takes up the remaining area and six of the traditional nine counties of Ulster, although these counties no longer exist as official administrative units.

On the island of Ireland, as everywhere, the naming of places often raises political issues. The usage of "Ireland" as the official name of the state causes offence to some Unionists in Northern Ireland, as it implies that the state still has a territorial claim to the whole island - the terminology of "Republic of Ireland" or " Éire" is much preferred by Northern Irish unionists when referring to that political state. Similarly, some Nationalists in Northern Ireland also prefer to reserve to usage of "Ireland" to refer to the whole island.

In Northern Ireland, Irishness is a highly contested identity, with fundamentally different perceptions between unionists who perceive themselves as being both British and Irish, and nationalists who consider both communities to be part of the Irish nation.

The Republic of Ireland is often referred to by the Nationalist and Republican communities by the term "the Twenty-six Counties", with the connotation that the state constituted as such forms only a portion of the ideal political unit of the Irish Republic, which would consist of all of the thirty-two counties into which the island is divided. Additionally, the term "the Six Counties" (in reference to Northern Ireland's six counties) is also used. Other Nationalist terms in use include: "the occupied six counties", but more popularly, "the North of Ireland" and, "the North", these are terms also used by the Irish national broadcaster RTÉ.

The Irish Passport is available to Irish citizens and can also be applied for abroad through Irish Consular services and the local Irish Embassy. As per the Irish nationality law, any person born on the island of Ireland before 2005, or otherwise a first generation descendant of such a person, is allowed to apply for an Irish Passport. As such, residents of Northern Ireland may be Irish Citizens and hold an Irish Passport if they choose.


The terminology and usage of the name Ulster in Irish and British culture varies. Many within the unionist community refer to Northern Ireland as Ulster– although this is officially wrong, as the Irish province of Ulster is a nine county entity incorporating the three counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, which are in the Republic of Ireland, along with the six northern counties. The term Ulster (and "the Province") are sometimes preferred by Unionists, sometimes because it can suggest an origin of the polity of Northern Ireland that pre-dates 1922, referring back to the Act of Union 1800, the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the Plantation of Ulster in 1610, the ancient migrations between Ulster and Scotland, and even to biblical tradition. This use for the term Ulster by Unionists to mean Northern Ireland, is offensive to members of the Nationalist community, as Ulster includes, but is not exclusive, to Northern Ireland. For these reasons, it is understandable that certain local place names are still in dispute: for example see Derry/Londonderry name dispute.

British Islands

British Islands.svg

Under the Interpretation Act 1978 of the United Kingdom, the legal term British Islands (as opposed to the geographical term British Isles) refers to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, together with the Crown dependencies: the Bailiwicks of Jersey and of Guernsey (which in turn includes the smaller islands of Alderney, Herm and Sark) in the Channel Islands; and the Isle of Man. On the front of passports issued to residents of the Crown dependencies, the words "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" are replaced with "British Islands" followed by the name of the issuing state or island .

Historical aspects

Origins of terms

The earliest known names for the islands come from ancient Greek writings. Though the original texts have been lost, excerpts were quoted or paraphrased by later authors. Parts of the Massaliote Periplus, a merchants' handbook describing searoutes of the 6th century BC, were used in translation in the writings of Avienus around AD 400. Ireland was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra, the sacred island, as the Greeks interpreted it) "inhabited by the race of Hiberni" (gens hiernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, "island of the Albions". Several sources from around 150 BC to AD 70 include fragments of the travel writings of the ancient Greek Pytheas around 320 BC, which also used the terms "Albion and 'Ierne." and have been described as referring to the British Isles, including Ireland, as the Pretanic Islands. Greek writers used the term αι Βρεττανιαι, which has been translated as the Brittanic Isles, and the peoples of these islands of Prettanike were called the Πρεττανοι, Priteni or Pretani. These names derived from a " Celtic language" term which is likely to have reached Pytheas from the Gauls who may have used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands.

The Romans called the inhabitants of Gaul (modern France) Galli or Celtae. The latter term came from the Greek name Κελτοι for a central European people, and 17th century antiquarians who found language connections developed the idea of a race of Celts inhabiting the area, but this term was not used by the Greeks or Romans for the inhabitants of Britain or Ireland, nor is there any record of the inhabitants of the British Isles referring to themselves as such.

Priteni is the source of the Welsh language term Prydain, Britain, and has the same source as the Goidelic term Cruithne. The latter referred to the early Brythonic speaking inhabitants of Ireland, the Scottish highlands and the north of Scotland, who are known as the Cruithne in Scottish Gaelic, and who the Romans called Picts or Caledonians.


Roman Britain in 410

Caesar's invasions of Britain brought descriptions of the peoples of what he called Britannia pars interior, "inland Britain", in 55 BC. Throughout Book 4 of his Geography, Strabo is consistent in spelling the island Britain (transliterated) as Prettanikee; he uses the terms Prettans or Brettans loosely to refer to the islands as a group - a common generalisation used by classical geographers. For example, in Geography 2.1.18, …οι νοτιώτατοι των Βρεττανών βορειότεροι τούτων εισίν ("…the most southern of the Brettans are further north than this"). He was writing around AD 10, although the earliest surviving copy of his work dates from the 6th century. Pliny the Elder writing around AD 70 uses a Latin version of the same terminology in section 4.102 of his Naturalis Historia. He writes of Great Britain: Albion ipsi nomen fuit, cum Britanniae vocarentur omnes de quibus mox paulo dicemus. ("Albion was its own name, when all [the islands] were called the Britannias; I will speak of them in a moment"). In the following section, 4.103, Pliny enumerates the islands he considers to make up the Britannias, listing Great Britain, Ireland, and many smaller islands. In his Geography written in the mid 2nd century and probably describing the position around AD 100, Ptolemy includes both Britain and Ireland – he calls it Hibernia – in the island group he calls Britannia. He entitles Book II, Chapter 1 of as Hibernia, Island of Britannia, and Chapter 2 as Albion, Island of Britannia.

The name Albion for Great Britain fell from favour, and the island was described in Greek as Πρεττανία or Βρεττανία, in Latin Britannia, an inhabitant as Βρεττανός, Britannus, with the adjective Βρεττανικός, Britannicus, equating to "British". With the Roman conquest of Britain the name Britannia was used for the province of Roman Britain. The Emperor Claudius was honoured with the agnomen Britannicus as if he were the conqueror, and coins were struck from AD 46 inscribed DE BRITAN, DE BRITANN, DE BRITANNI, or DE BRITANNIS. With the visit of Hadrian in AD 121 coins introduced a female figure with the label BRITANNIA as a personification or goddess of the place. These and later Roman coins introduced the seated figure of Britannia which would be reintroduced in the 17th century.

In the later years of Roman rule Britons who left Latin inscriptions, both at home and elsewhere in the Empire, often described themselves as Brittanus or Britto, and where describing their citizenship gave it as cives of a British tribe or of a patria (homeland) of Britannia, not Roma. From the 4th century, many Britons migrated from Roman Britain across the English Channel and founded Brittany.

Renaissance mapmakers

The 1654 Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, Insulae Albion Et Hibernia

Abraham Ortelius makes clear his understanding that England, Scotland and Ireland were politically separate in 1570 by the full title of his map: "Angliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae, sive Britannicar. insularum descriptio" which translates as "A representation of England, Scotland and Ireland, or Britannica's islands." Additionally many maps from this period show Wales and Cornwall as separate nations, most notably those of Mercator.

Maps of the Mediæval, Renaissance and later periods often referred to Albion. This archaic term was originally used by Ptolemy and Pliny to mean the island of Great Britain. In later centuries its meaning changed to refer only to the area we now call Scotland ( Albany, or Alba in Gaelic). Albion has survived as a poetic name for Britain but it is not in everyday use.

18th and 19th Centuries

A 1726 map showing "The north part of Great Britain called Scotland"

Following the Acts of Union 1707, a fashion arose, particularly in Scotland, for referring to Scotland and England as North Britain and South Britain respectively. These terms gained in popularity during the nineteenth century. The most lasting example of this usage was in the name of the North British Railway, which became part of the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923, and in the name of the North British Hotel, built by the railway in Edinburgh in 1902, which retained the name until it reopened in 1991 as the Balmoral Hotel.

Evolution of kingdoms and states

A timeline of states in the British Isles. (Formally, Ireland continues to exist, but the term "Republic of Ireland" is more widely used).

The diagram on the right gives an indication of the further evolution of kingdoms and states. In 1603 the Scottish King James VI inherited the English throne as "James I of England". He styled himself as James I of Great Britain, although both states retained their sovereignty and independent parliaments, the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England. (The term "Great Britain" itself reportedly dates from as early as 1474, and was in common usage from the mid-16th century onwards.)

The 1707 Act of Union united England and Scotland in the United Kingdom of Great Britain under the Parliament of Great Britain, then in 1800 Ireland was brought under British government control by the Act of Union creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Irish unrest culminated in the Irish War of Independence and the 1922 separation of the Irish Free State which later became the Republic of Ireland. The majority Protestant northeast continued to be part of what was now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

British overseas territories such as Bermuda, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, the Falkland Islands, and the British Antarctic Territory have (or have had) various relationships with the UK. The Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) is a loose confederation of nations roughly corresponding to the former British Empire, mostly for economic co-operation, formalised in 1931. (This has no connection with the Commonwealth of England and The Protectorate which were short-lived republics replacing the previous kingdoms during the Interregnum (1649–1660).)


The adjectives used to describe the contents and attributes of the various constituent parts of the British Isles also cause confusion.

In the absence of a single adjective to refer to the United Kingdom, British is generally used to refer to the United Kingdom as a whole. However, in a specifically physical geographical sense, British is used to refer to the island of Great Britain. Members of the Unionist communities in Northern Ireland might describe themselves as British even though they are not on the island of Great Britain, as this reflects a political and cultural identity.

The cumbersome adjective Great British is very rarely used to refer to Great Britain, other than to contrive a pun on the word great, as in "Great British Food".

Irish, in a political sense, is used to refer to the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland, as a constituent part of the United Kingdom, would be included within the umbrella of the political term British, though many Unionists in Northern Ireland also consider themselves Irish. In order to be more specific, Northern Irish is therefore in common usage. Members of the Nationalist communities would not describe themselves as British and would only use the terms Irish, or specifically Northern Irish where needed.

The term Ulster can also be used as an adjective (e.g. " Royal Ulster Constabulary"), but this is more likely to be used by Unionists and has political connotations in the same fashion as its use as a proper noun (because only six of the traditional nine counties of Ulster, namely Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, are included in Northern Ireland with the remaining three counties Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan forming part of the Republic). The term Ulsterman (or Ulsterwoman) is common and holds no such political connotation. Likewise, Nationalists might describe, say, a lake in Northern Ireland as Irish. However, some Nationalists might attribute what they see as less attractive aspects of Northern Ireland to Britain or even to England.

Note that the geographical term Irish Sea thus far appears to have escaped political connotations, even though territorial control of the waters of the Irish Sea is divided between both the Republic of Ireland and the UK, and also includes a British Crown dependency, the Isle of Man — as yet there appears to be no controversy with the term’s usage to mirror that of "British Isles". The North Channel is found off the east coast of Northern Ireland and it stretches the length of roughly two-thirds of Northern Ireland's eastern coastline.

The "Northern" in "Northern Ireland" is not completely accurate. The most northerly point on the island, Malin Head, is in the Republic of Ireland — in County Donegal's Inishowen Peninsula.

Scottish, English and Welsh are self-explanatory but the term English is sometimes incorrectly used to mean British as well, although seldom by those aware of the political connotations; many people living in all parts of the UK and Ireland find such use of English insulting.

Problems with use of terms

British Isles

The dictionary definition of British Isles is that it is a geographical term that refers to the whole of Ireland and Great Britain as well as the surrounding islands. However, it is sometimes used as if identical to the UK; or to refer to Great Britain and the surrounding islands, excluding the island of Ireland entirely. The BBC and The Times have style guides that mandate the dictionary definition but occasional misuse can be found on their web sites.

The term British Isles can also be considered irritating or offensive by some on the grounds that the modern association of the term British with the United Kingdom makes its application to Ireland inappropriate.

The policy of the government of the Republic of Ireland is that no branch of government should use the term, and although it is on occasion used in a geographical sense in Irish parliamentary debates, this is often done in a way that excludes the Republic of Ireland. In October 2006, The Times quoted a spokesman for the Irish Embassy in London as saying that they would discourage its use.

During a stop-over visit to the Republic of Ireland in 1989, the leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, indicated that he assumed Ireland's head of state was Queen Elizabeth II, given that she was the British Queen and his officials said that Ireland was a part of the British Isles.

In Northern Ireland, nationalists reject the term and use these islands or these isles as an alternative.

There have been several suggestions for replacements for the term British Isles. Although there is no single accepted replacement, the terms Great Britain and Ireland, The British Isles and Ireland and Britain and Ireland are all used.


The word Ireland has two meanings.

  1. It is the official name of the state that occupies five sixths of the island.
  2. It is a geographical term for the whole island


The word Ulster has two usages.

  1. It is the name of one of the four Provinces of Ireland, consisting of the nine northern counties of the island. Its jurisdiction is partitioned between the United Kingdom (six counties) and the Republic of Ireland (three counties).
  2. It is an alternative name for Northern Ireland, used by many in the Unionist community. It consists of the six north-eastern counties of the island that remain part of the United Kingdom.


A still from the 1943 propaganda film series Why We Fight, which may be interpreted as giving the name England to the whole of Great Britain

The word England is often used colloquially — and incorrectly — to refer to Great Britain or the United Kingdom as a whole. This usage is problematic and causes offence in many parts of Britain, especially in Scotland and Wales.

Inadverent references to England as an island, to an "English passport", or to Scottish or Welsh placenames as being in England are common examples of incorrect use of the term England. In sporting events, it was common for fans of the England football team to wave the British Union Flag, until the English St George's Cross gained popularity at Euro 96.

There are historical instances of patriotic references to "England" which are actually intended to include Scotland and Wales as well.

The usage of "England" as a synonym for "Britain" is common throughout the world, although this confusion is declining in the UK. In Germany, the term "England" is often used to mean Great Britain or even the entire United Kingdom. In many other languages, such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean, the word for "English" is synonymous with "British" - see the article on Alternative words for British for more detail.

Further information

Isle of Man and Channel Islands

The Isle of Man and the two bailiwicks of the Channel Islands are Crown dependencies; that is, non-sovereign nations, self-governing but whose sovereignty is held by the British Crown. They control their own internal affairs, but not their defence or foreign relations. They are not part of the United Kingdom nor part of the European Union.

  • The Isle of Man is part of the British Isles, situated in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland.
  • The Channel Islands consist politically of two self-governing bailiwicks: the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey. They are the remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, which was once in personal union with the Kingdom of England. They are sometimes, despite their location next to mainland France, considered part of the British Isles. This usage is political rather than geographic.
  • The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are British Islands in United Kingdom law.

Celtic names

The Celtic languages in the region — Cornish (no native speakers), Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Manx— each have names for the various countries and subdivisions of the British Isles.

Some of the above are:

  Cornwall England Ireland Northern Ireland Republic of Ireland Scotland Wales
Cornish Kernow Pow an Sawson Wordhen Wordhen North Republyk Wordhen Alban Kembra
Irish An Chorn Sasana Éire Tuaisceart Éireann Poblacht na hÉireann Albain An Bhreatain Bheag
Manx Yn Chorn Sostyn Nerin Nerin Twoaie Pobblaght Nerin Nalbin An Bhreatain Bheag
Scottish Gaelic A' Chòrn Sasainn Èirinn Èirinn a Tuath Poblachd na h-Èireann Alba A' Chuimrigh
Welsh Cernyw Lloegr Iwerddon Gogledd Iwerddon Gweriniaeth Iwerddon Yr Alban Cymru

Note: In Irish there are actually several terms for Northern Ireland: An Tuaisceart, meaning "the North", is usually used, but a more recent term for official use is Tuaisceart Éireann.

The English word Welsh is from a common Germanic root meaning "foreigner" ( cognate with Wallonia and Wallachia, and also cognate with the word used in Mediaeval German to refer to the French and Italians). The English names Albion and Albany are related to Alba and used poetically for either England or Scotland, or the whole island of Great Britain. English Erin is a poetic name for Ireland derived from Éire (or rather, from its dative form Éirinn).

The terms for the British Isles in the Irish language

In Irish, the term Oileáin Bhriotanacha is attested as a version of the English term British Isles. In this sense, Briotanach refers to British people in the sense of the islands belonging to them. Another translation is Oileáin Bhreataineacha, which is used in a 1937 geography book translated into Irish from English. In this instance, Breataineach refers to the people of the island of Great Britain, again in the sense of the islands belonging to them. Neither of these two terms is often used in Irish.

Earlier dictionaries give Oileáin Iarthair Eorpa as the translation, literally meaning West European Isles. Today the most common term Éire agus an Bhreatain Mhór is used, meaning literally as Ireland and Great Britain, as provided by terminological dictionaries.


Blighty is a slang word for Britain derived from the Hindustani word bilāyatī ("foreign"). Depending on the user, it is meant either affectionately or archly. It was often used by British soldiers abroad in the First World War to refer to home.


The term "Europe" may be used in one of several different contexts by British and Irish people; either to refer to the whole of the European continent, to refer to only to Mainland Europe, sometimes called "continental Europe" or simply "the Continent" by some people in the archipelago — as in the apocryphal newspaper headline "Fog shrouds Channel, continent cut off."

Europe and the adjective European may also be used in reference to the European Union, particularly in a derogative context such as "The new regulations handed out by Europe".

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