The name Britain derives from a tribe of Celts, the Britons: The name was first recorded by the Greeks in C4th, as Prettanoi, which has been traditionally explained as meaning “figured folk”, or “tattooed people”, from the Britons’ habit of decorating their bodies (as some still do!). The modern version of the name comes from Norman French– this in turn deriving from the Latin rendering of the Greek name—Britannia.
This root also led to the Brittany area of France (Bretagne in French), where many Britons fled when the Anglo-Saxons invaded England. The Latin name for Brittany was Britannia Minor (‘Little Britain’), as distinct from Britannia Major (Great Britain).
Thence the Britons gave their name to the islands off the north-west coast of mainland Europe, the British Isles, with the largest of those islands being termed “Great Britain”. The island of Great Britain provides the mainland for the three nations of England, Scotland and Wales; so when political union was formed between these three nations in 1707, Great Britain was the natural name for it (Britain for short).
In the following couple of centuries, the British expanded its territory to westerly neighbours Ireland; in 1801 Great Britain formally annexed Ireland, and the United Kingdom was formed. Soon the sea-faring British (by then having the most powerful navy in the world) had an empire, based on the English language and Common Law.
At its height, the British Empire covered almost a quarter of the world: However, as with all empires, it started to crumble; some territories were eager to assert independence early on, notably the USA. Most the British Empire’s dissolution happened during the C20th.
Closer to home, Ireland was growing restless under United Kingdom rule, in the wake of mass emigration and the potato feminine of the 1840s. After much deliberation in the 1910s, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was enacted in 1922, which saw the partition of Ireland. The northern-most six counties of Ireland stayed with the UK, and formed a new nation of the UK called Northern Ireland.
The rest of Ireland became a completely independent state, and denounced the British crown. Officially this new sovereign state was (and is) simply called Ireland; however to avoid confusion with this and the island of Ireland, the former is typically referred to as the “Republic of Ireland” or by the Irish-Gaelic name “Eire”. Although the Republic of Ireland geologically forms what is termed the British Isles– it is not British– and citizens of the country have the demonym of “Irish”.
After World War 2, the sovereignty of Northern Ireland became a contentious issue. The 1960s saw the start of what became known as The Troubles: Meiosis to describe prolonged and violent hostilities between Republican factions (those, typically with Catholic sympathies, who want Northern Ireland be united with the Republic of Ireland), and Unionist factions (those, typically Protestant, who wish for NI to remain with the UK). In 1973 a referendum was held to establish whether residents of the nation wished to remain in the UK, or join the rest of Ireland. Despite overwhelming support for Northern Ireland to stay with the UK, belligerence continued.
Towards the end of the 1990s, numerous peace-talks were held to reconcile the two sides, resulting in the largely successful Good Friday Agreement. Since then, amongst other matters, citizens of Northern Ireland may now choose to identify as either Irish or British.
As a side-note, the term “Ulster” is occasionally used as a synonym for Northern Ireland: Ulster is one of the ancient provinces of Ireland, six of its nine counties form Northern Ireland; however three of the counties form part of the Republic of Ireland. As such, its use is contentious, and is advisable to avoid in careful speech/writing.
Eighty-nine years after most of Ireland separated from the UK, the Scottish National Party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The party advocates Scotland’s withdrawal from the UK, and pledged a referendum on Scotland remaining part of the UK: In autumn 2014 this referendum was held; the majority voted for Scotland to remain part of the UK, and thus to stay British.
Elsewhere in the world, the latter half of the C20th saw the British Empire dissolve: Especially through the 1950s and 1960s; where many colonies sought, and were granted, independence—thereby ceasing to become British. Whilst those countries have severed political ties, many of those countries have retained the British monarch as head of state.
Whether those former British possessions have become republics or not, most those of the former-empire countries have become members of the Commonwealth, with a few exceptions (notably Republic of Ireland and the USA). The Commonwealth was initiated in the 1940s, and is an intergovernmental organisation of 53 countries: The Commonwealth’s objectives were first outlined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, which “committed the Commonwealth to the institution of world peace; promotion of representative democracy and individual liberty; the pursuit of equality and opposition to racism; the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease– and free trade”.
The 53 countries have no legal obligation to one another via the Commonwealth, they are united simply by shared language, history, culture and rule of Common Law. Although most of Commonwealth countries were formerly part of the British Empire, not all were (Mozambique, for instance).
Although the British Empire has ceased to be, there are still 14 “British Overseas Territories” dotted across the world: These territories are self-governing; however the UK government is still responsible for their “good governance”, as well as representation in selected international fora. Furthermore citizens of the BOT, have British nationality.
In addition there are some territories that are situated near the UK, which are possessions of the British crown, but were not absorbed by the UK. These are the called the Crown Dependencies: Between England and France are the Channel Islands, the jurisdictions of which fall under either the crown dependency of either Jersey or Guernsey. Lying in the Irish Sea twixt the four nations of the UK is the Isle of Man, the third crown dependency. Again the Crown Dependencies are self-governing, the UK government is responsible for good governance of those islands; they are associated with, but not part of, the UK. Citizens of these areas are British citizens.
Therefore at present the British (legally speaking at least) can be described as those and that which are from the UK, the Crown Dependencies and the British Overseas Territories.
< The flag of the British, the UK or Great Britain, is the Union Flag. It is comprised of English flag (St George, the red plus on white background), the Scottish flag (the Saltire, white cross on a blue background) and the red X cross represents Northern Ireland. At the time of the flag’s creation, Wales had been annexed by England, thus Wales was implicitly represented by the English flag. Wales does have its own flag, a red dragon on a white and green background.
The Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories have their own flags, but may be also represented by the Union Flag (as well as the British national anthem—God Save The Queen). A widespread, but apocryphal, belief is the Union Flag may only be called the Union Jack, when it is flown on a ship. Although the Union Jack is a nautical term, there is no official decree stating it only be called that, when flown on a boat or ship.
On a final note, with regards to terminology:
As it stands, the UK now comprises of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although England is the dominant nation of the four in terms of size and population, England is not a synonym for the UK, as occasionally happens. It is worth bearing in mind that England only accounts for 84% of the UK’s population, and just under 54% of the UK’s total land area.
England is one nation of the sovereign state of the United Kingdom: So for instance the “Queen of England”, a commonly used epithet overseas, is actually incorrect, as Her Majesty is the Head of State for the United Kingdom (IE UK is the sovereign state, not England)– thus Queen of The United Kingdom– or better still the British Queen. In other words England/English should only be used when describing the England alone, and not the UK or the other British territories.
In a similar vein, Great Britain is not a synonym for the UK either. Geographically the term describes the largest island of the British Ilses; thus the terminology in this sense excludes islands belonging to England, Wales and Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland. Politically GB refers to England, Scotland and Wales, but this only three-quarters of the UK: Indeed the full name of the UK is—“United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland”.
To help alleviate the confusion, a Venn diagram follows:
Let the postcards can begin!