The difference between England, Britain, and the United Kingdom (and a few other places, too)

Posted on
Feb 4, 2010

The other day we were hanging out with some friends – some American, some not, and we realized that none of us were really sure what countries are included in the phrase “United Kingdom”. Nor did we know what’s a part of “Great Britain.” England, we pretty much figured out (they’re those wussy guys who tried to tax us, right?).

The point is, along with which colors indicates positive and negative charges on a pair of jumper cables, these are things that we all should probably know, but don’t (For the record, red is positive and black is negative). I figured it was best to set the record straight (for myself and others) before we actually head out Glasgow and London next week. So while our British reader (Hi, Will!) sits back and cringes, the rest of you should pay attention, because we might all learn something.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (U.K., for short): Consists of the countries of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (note: just Northern Ireland is part of the U.K.; The Republic of Ireland is not.).

Great Britain: Refers to the island off the west coast of mainland Europe, consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales. Since it JUST refers to the island, this means Great Britain DOES NOT include Northern Ireland. The problem that exists is that people say “Great Britain” when they really mean “the U.K.”

There’s some amazing graphics and explanations on this site. I’ve also stolen one of their diagrams, which I found immensely helpful (via Mandy Barrow’s ProjectBritain.com):

This actually makes a lot of sense now.

This actually makes a lot of sense now.

Britain: to make matters even more complicated, people occassionally just say “Britain”, which actually refers to only England and Wales (and not Scotland). Though some people might mean to include Scotland when they refer to Britian, they’d be incorrect. The names originate from Roman times – when the area that is now England and Wales made up the providence of “Britannia” (since modern Scotland was never conquered, it’s not included in what is now “Britain”). This also leads to some confusion when people say “British” – the term should only apply to things or people hailing from England and Wales. Fortunately, most people are very specific, and will actually say, “I’m English” or “I’m Welsh.”

England: a country that is part of the United Kingdom, located on the island of Great Britain. It is bordered by the coutry of Scotland to the north, and the coutry of Wales to the west.

Wales: A country that lies to the west of England, on the west coast of the island of Great Britain. It is a pricipality (and not a kingdom, like England). This means that it is reigned over by a prince – in this case, not surprisingly, the Prince of Wales (which is a courtesy title given to the heir apparent to the British throne – I assume because England occupied Wales for long). Also, I think hobbits are originally from here.

Scotland: Part of the United Kingdom, Scotland is a country bordered by England to the south, and makes up the northernmost end of the island of Great Britain (holy crap. I can’t believe I just wrote that. I feel like I learned something). This is a photo of some famous Scots:

Not pictured: The Highlander

Not pictured: The Highlander

Northern Ireland: Not part of the island of Great Britain (it’s separate from it by the Irish Sea), this country IS part of the United Kingdom. It is bordered by The Republic of Ireland to the Southwest. Predominently Protestant, though roughly 25% of the population here is Catholic and regard the British as an occupying power.

The Republic of Ireland: Also not a part of the island of Great Britain (since, duh, it’s underneath Northern Ireland) and NOT a part of the United Kingdom (this part of Ireland split from Northern Ireland, and the U.K., in 1922). Predominantly Catholic, there is a lot of conflict between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a situation which has been dubbed, simply, “The Troubles” (though according to Will – Hi, Will! – this situation has gotten better as of late). The Republic of Ireland is often just called “Ireland”, though that term can refer to the entire island (including Northern Ireland as well).

Isle of Man: I was going to skip covering the Isle of Man entirely, but I didn’t want to risk offending the 14 people who live there (okay, fine – apparently the real population is 80k. But still). I actually met a guy from the Isle of Man once, and smiled, nodding, when he told me where he was from, but he gave me a look that said, “You have no idea, do you, American girl? No effing clue.” But now I know: The Isle of Man is a tiny island between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. It isn’t actually part of the U.K. (or the E.U., for that matter), but the U.K. is kind of oversees it – hence it is called a British Crown Dependency. (One more interesting tidbit from Will: If you hear locals here referring to “the mainland”, they mean The Isle of Man itself, and NOT Great Britain. Because, compared to some of the tinier surrounding islands around it, the Isle of Man, is, well, mainland).

Rand and I had a long discussion about whether or not the Isle of Man is actually its own country (since, for nationality purposes, it’s part of the U.K.). Rand said it was, but I was unsure, since it wasn’t independent. Apparently, it is its own country, but not an independent one.

There’s also an interesting discussion on nationalities and cultural identity here. Be warned, the American who submits the question that gets the conversation going is clearly a moron. And frankly, after reading it, I’m still not sure what “British” refers to (it’s either people from Britain or people from Great Britain. Essentially, “Are the Scots also Brits?” is the question that I can’t seem to answer, and neither can this site.)

Anywho, I really proud to say that, after writing this post, I might have learned something. Of course, that didn’t stop me from having this exchange with my hubby last night:

Me: Honey, are we going to Northern Ireland or The Republic of Ireland? Because one is primarily Catholic, and one is under British rule.

Rand: We’re not going to Ireland – we’re going to Scotland.

Me: Oh, right.

P.S. – A big thanks to Will, who offered some feedback on this post. And no thanks at all to Jon, who for some reason wasn’t checking his email at 3 a.m. GMT. For shame.)

Leave a Comment

  • “Northern Ireland is part of the U.K.; The Republic of Ireland is not.” I just got schooled.

  • Interesting post – this is something we’ve covered on Anglotopia as well. We make the situation worse by using the word Anglophile to encompass anyone who likes England, Scotland, Wales, etc while the actual definition means people who just like England. Walesophile and Scotophile just don’t have the same ring to it.

  • Geraldine

    Alison – I hope you mean “schooled” in the sense that you learned something, and not “schooled” in the sense that someone handed your ass to you, because that certainly wasn’t my intention. 🙂

    John – It’s definitely a topic worth explaining (I hope I did it justice, in your esteem!). And come on – “Scotophile” sounds awesome.

  • I think it’s cool that you posted this; it does get confusing I know. I am from Scotland and do sometimes call myself “British” so paragraph six was interesting for me.

    Anyway, I hope you have a good trip.

  • Geraldine

    Karen – well, really, it seems like there are no hard-and-fast rules about it, and if you’re Scottish and refer to yourself as British, it sure as hell must be okay, then. 🙂 Besides, if we were to get REALLY technical, some of the Scottish low-lands were parts of Britannia. 🙂

  • Christine

    Hey, if you really want to confuse people throw in the Channel Islands!

  • Geraldine

    Christine – I left them out for a reason. 🙂

  • people occassionally just say “Britain”, which actually refers to only England and Wales (and not Scotland). Though some people might mean to include Scotland when they refer to Britian, they’d be incorrect.

    I’m English and I’m pretty anal about all of these various names.. and while you’ve got it all mostly right, I have to disagree with this portion. What you say may be academically correct in terms of the origin, but in terms of common usage and modern definition, “Britain” or “British” certainly includes Scotland. “Britain” is certainly the least defined of all the terms though, so is one worth avoiding when one doesn’t want to cause confusion. The others, as you’ve shown, have pretty clear definitions.

  • Peter – thanks for the feedback – my understanding is that there’s some flexibility in these terms, but a lot of stuff I’ve read said that British couldn’t refer to Scotland. However, since a lot of Scots refer to themselves as Brits, it seems like my sources must have been wrong (perhaps, as you said technically accurate in terms of origin, but not in actual usage).

  • Wow – I actually would have thought that I had this one figured out – knew that N. Ireland was a part of the UK, but all of that about Britain and Great Britain – I feel so much more enlightened!

  • Fucksakes. I studied in England for six weeks and I still get confused.

  • Everywhereist

    Candice – Oh, crap. Your comment put a much needed smile on my face. Bwah ha ha ha ha.

  • The Britain vs. GB thing is / was news to me too. My wife is (part) Scottish and I don’t know any Scottish people who would say they weren’t British (in fact the running joke is that Andy Murray is British when he wins and Scottish when he loses)…

    I like things that are technically true while being used incorrectly everywhere. I enjoy using them correctly just to annoy people. Oh dear. That’s not a good thing to admit to.

  • Andy

    Scotophile sounds like lover of some guy named Scot.

  • Don

    I’m a “Yank” (American from the US) who did grad work in Scotland for three wonderful years. I have a very English last name, and a Scot, on hearing it, once said to me, “Och, ye’re a Sassenach.” When I asked him what it meant, he responded “Southlander.” That sounded odd, so I asked a Scottish friend back at the college, and he laughed and said, “It really means ‘Saxon’ — which makes you an invading, conquering oppressor.” So there’s another term to deal with (some Irish use it too; the Welsh equivalent is “Saesnig”). I’m comforted that my “Christian name” (as it was referred to in Britain) is Donald.

    • Everywhereist

      Weirdly, my name (Geraldine) is one of those that, while fairly unusual in the states, translates pretty well in to most languages. The English and Scots don’t have a problem with it, nor do the French or the Italians (mostly). But in Spain, I always have a bit of trouble because of the “g”. (“Heraldine?” “No, Geraldine.”)

  • I’m another British reader who’s cringing. 😉 Haha. But this is a good post because there’s nothing worse for us Welshies and the Scots to hear Americans refer to GB or the UK as “England”.

    Ooh, and also:

    British Isles: England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Ireland.

    Wales: My country. 🙂 I miss it because I don’t live there anymore. We’re not hobbits, you’re thinking of New Zealand. 😉 The Prince only rules us in name because we have a much better government (the Welsh Assembly) than the actual Government in London. No-one outside of the UK has ever heard of us even though we created kickass people like Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. 🙂

  • Caitlin

    Lovely post, but I have to say you could have chosen a better map! That one seems to completely miss some of the Western Isles. Thankfully Lewis is on it! 🙂

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