- the island of Great Britain (with its outlying islands) consisting of the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales, or
- the United Kingdom and its predecessors. The latter usage is very common (and is even used by the UK government) but is technically incorrect except from 1707-1800). As explained below, the discrepancy has arisen because the island and the kingdom at one time coincided, but do so no longer.
- the British Empire and its forces, which at one time included a quarter of the world's population,
- The brythonic Celts of Great Britain (the "ancient Britons", distinct from the goidelic Celts of Ireland), or
- (disputably) the British Isles
Evolution of the words
The meanings of Britain and British have evolved over time and as they have gained political significance.
In 325 BC the Greek Pytheas of Massalia visited a group of islands which he called Pretaniké, the principal ones being Albionon (Albion) and Ierne (Erin). (The records of this visit date from much more recent times, so there is room for these details to be disputed.) To linguists, this suggests the Brythonic inhabitants called themselves Priteni.
In manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle there is a reference to the inhabitants having migrated to the islands from "Armenia" but most historians believe this was a mistake in transcription and that the actual origin of the islanders was Armorica.
Because of resistance to Roman rule in Armorica (which was supported by Celtic aristocrats in the islands) Julius Caesar responded with two invasions of the main island in 55 and 54 BC.
However the Romans derived the name, they called their possessions Britannia. The earlier Celtic inhabitants became known as Britons and the island as Britain. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the name Britannia largely fell into abeyance and tended to be used in an historical sense, referring to the Roman possessions.
Some centuries after the Romans had left, some of the Britons returned to the near continent. Further centuries later Geoffrey of Monmouth used the names Britannia minor to refer to the Armorican region they had returned to and Britannia major for the island. Only by the late Middle Ages did the concept of "Britain" come to represent anything more modern than the Romans. By then, the continental region was known as Brittany and the island as Great Britain (compare the French names Bretagne and Grande Bretagne).
The kingdoms established on the island of Great Britain were perceived to be dominant over the whole archipelago, which was known as the British Isles. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the queen's astrologer and alchemist, John Dee, wrote mystical volumes predicting a British Empire and using the terms "Great Britain" and "Britannia". After Elizabeth's death in 1603 the kingdoms shared one King, James VI of Scotland and I of England. On 20 October 1604 he proclaimed himself "King of Great Britain" (thus including Wales and also avoiding the cumbersome title "King of England and Scotland"). This title was eventually adopted formally in 1707 when the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed. The adjective used for the kingdom was British.
Since its formation, the kingdom was enlarged in 1801 by the addition of the island of Ireland - already ruled by the British monarchy - and was then reduced in 1922 by the independence of the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland. The name of the kingdom changed accordingly, becoming The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To some writers the meaning of British and Britain have changed with the Kingdom. The words British citizen is now used to indicate United Kingdom (UK) nationality because there is no suitable substitute. However, to other writers Britain is still synonymous with only the island of Great Britain.
Other terms also cause confusion. Great Britain is undisputedly the name of the large island, but is occasionally used to mean the UK, for instance in the modern Olympic Games. As abbreviations, both UK and GB are often used for the United Kingdom, while GB is only rarely restricted to Great Britain. The British Isles is still a geographical term for the archipelago, but it can also still be seen as implying dominance by Great Britain, so it is sometimes avoided. The prefix Anglo, historically meaning English, is sometimes used to denote the UK, as in Anglo-Irish. See the respective articles.
- Pretaniké; Pretanikai nesoi (Pretanic isles) 325 BC
- Britannia 55 BC (Julius Caesar, Roman invasion of Britain)
- Brittisc 855 (OED)
- Grate Briteigne 1548 (OED)
- British isles 1550 (in Latin; map of Sebastian Munster cited in British Isles article)
Sources and Further Reading
- A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World, 3500 BC - 1603 AD by Simon Schama, BBC/Miramax, 2000 ISBN 0786866756
- A History of Britain, Volume 2: The Wars of the British 1603-1776 by Simon Schama, BBC/Miramax, 2001 ISBN 0786866756
- A History of Britain - The Complete Collection on DVD by Simon Schama, BBC 2002 ASIN B00006RCKI
- The Isles, A History by Norman Davies, Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-19-513442-7
- Shortened History of England by G. M. Trevelyan Penguin Books ISBN 0140233237
- Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English by Eric Partridge, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1966