Who are the British?


Why British not English?


Many foreigners say 'England' and 'English' when they mean 'Britain', or the 'UK', and 'British'. This is very annoying for the 5 million people who live in Scotland, the 2.8 million in Wales and 1.5 million in Northern Ireland who are certainly not English. (46 million people live in England.) However, the people from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are all British. So what is the difference between the names 'Great Britain' and 'the United Kingdom' - and what about 'the British Isles'?


The United Kingdom


This is an abbreviation of 'the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. It is often further abbreviated to 'UK', and is the political name of the country which is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (sometimes known as Ulster). Several islands off the British coast are also part of the United Kingdom (for example, the Isle of Wight, the Orkneys, Hebrides and Shetlands, and the Isles of Scilly), although the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not. However, all these islands do recognize the Queen.


Great Britain


This is the name of the island which is made up of England, Scotland and Wales and so, strictly speaking, it does not include Northern Ireland. The origin of the word 'Great' is a reference to size, because in many European languages the words for Britain and Brittany in France are the same. In fact, it was the French who first talked about Grande Bretagne! In everyday speech 'Britain' is used to mean the United Kingdom.


The British Isles


This is the geographical name that refers to all the islands off the north west coast of the European continent: Great Britain, the whole of Ireland (Northern and Southern), the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. But it is important to remember that Southern Ireland - that is the Republic of Ireland (also called 'Eire') - is completely independent.


So you can see that 'the United Kingdom' is the correct name to use if you are referring to the country in a political, rather than in a geographical way. 'British' refers to people from the UK, Great Britain or the British Isles in general.


Susan Sheerin, Jonathan Seath, Gillian White: Spotlight on Britain; Oxford University Press, 1985, page 2