Why is Britain called Great Britain?

The question of why Britain’s called Great Britain popped up in a comment thread, and if I were a better person I’d go back and figure out where it was and link to whoever raised it (it was a British reader in case that strikes you as being worth knowing) but I’m crazed lately. I made a note to do sixty seconds of research on the topic, forgot to copy the link into my notes, and here I am, without a clue where we were at the time.


But the question persists. What are we talking about when we say “Great Britain”?

If you wander around London long enough, you’ll eventually stumble into a street called Great Russell Street. It’s not a particularly big street, but I’m assuming it’s bigger than (not great) Russell Street, which you’ll also stumble into if you stumble long enough. (All this stumbling relies on the same principal as those thousand monkey on typewriters who will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare, assuming you can convince monkeys to type. And assuming I can get you to wander long enough. You’re welcome to stop for tea as often as you like if that helps. Or a beer.)

Great, my friends, isn’t a value judgment in either context. It means big. Big honkin’ Russell Street, Big honkin’ Britain.

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie is growing and would now like to be known as Great Eddie.

The first person to use great in the context of Britain seems to have been Ptolemy, who wasn’t writing in English so we’re fudging our facts here, but it’s interesting anyway. He called what we now know as England, Scotland, and Wales (and Cornish nationalist would add Cornwall)—in other words, the bigger landmass hereabouts—Great Britain, and Ireland—the smaller one—Little Britain.

Then everyone forgot about it for centuries. They had other things on their minds. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth called that bigger landmass Greater Britain to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, which wasn’t Ireland but Brittany. And then they forgot about it all for another long stretch of time.

The phrase pops up again in the fifteenth century in a not very interesting context, then gets serious in the seventeenth century, when James united what were still and continued to be two separate countries, England and Scotland, under a single monarchy—and (although it’s not relevant to our discussion) claimed Ireland and France as well. In the next century, England and Scotland were united into a single country. Wales had been conquered some time before all this and the English had gotten into the habit of thinking it was part of England (the Welsh thought differently), so it didn’t get a separate mention right then.

James, by the way, was either the first or the sixth, depending on whether you’re standing in England or in Scotland when you count. I told you not to trust me with numbers—they go all shifty when I’m in the room. It should also be noted that James couldn’t spell for shit. He called himself the king of “Great Brittaine,”

Well, he was king. He got to spell it any way he wanted. Who was going to tell him he had it wrong? Besides, pretty much everyone did that back then, with pretty much any word they set their feathery pens to.

Fast forward to the days when Britain had an empire. The Great in Great Britain must’ve been handy and did take on the tone of a value judgment. But the origin? Big. Nothing but big.

These days, Great Britain means England, Wales, and Scotland. (The link here is basically a footnote in case you’re seriously interested. I could also link to some kid’s school paper, which for reasons I won’t stop to think about came up at the top of Google’s list, but I won’t.) And Cornwall, as the Cornish nationalists would remind us. Along with some of the surrounding small islands but not others, which are self-governing dependent territories.

Don’t ask.

It doesn’t include Northern Ireland. But in everyday speech, people often use British to cover the entire United Kingdom, which does include Northern Ireland. A website called Know Britain says that from a legal point of view this is inaccurate—and just afterward it notes that the phrase is often used to mean exactly that in legislation, especially in reference to nationality.

So there you go. Are you confused yet? Then my work is done. But because I don’t like to leave a topic until I’ve overdone it, I should add that Know Britain says the British Islands is a political term meaning the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. But the British Isles is a geographical term meaning Great Britain, all of Ireland, and all the smaller islands around them. Don’t you just love this language?

Someday when I’m feeling particularly brave I’ll tackle the question of which categories of people would say, “I’m British,” and which ones would say, for example, “I’m English,” or “I’m Cornish” and so forth, and what all that means. Or may mean.

But for now we’ll end there . It may not all be good, but it’s great, isn’t it?

128 thoughts on “Why is Britain called Great Britain?

  1. it is craziness like this that makes me love this country :-D

    I am also pleased to say that thanks to an OU course on identity I did know all this :-)

    I would love to hear the thing about which people call themselves English or British (or Cornish)

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I can’t wait until you explain who calls themselves what. We vacationed in Scotland several years ago, and I asked a docent at a museum the differences. She just looked at me as if I was a clueless, idiot American and never answered. Maybe she didn’t know???

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hard to say for sure, but in Scotland, which very nearly voted to become an independent country–was it only last year?–I’d expect anyone to know the difference between, at a minimum, English and Scottish. And to give you an earful. Maybe more than you wanted to hear.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Here in the US, I once encountered a man from Wales and when I described him as being British, he corrected me, and very pointedly said, “I am Welsh.”

      So then I just started calling him the “creepy foreigner.” ;)

      Liked by 4 people

        • That I called him British? He was offended. He impressed me as a twit. You know, the ancient grievances those folks have against one another doesn’t trouble my American mind :)

          If someone called me a Texan, I would probably smile and show the good grace not to correct him/her, and I’d have a funny story to tell my friends when I got home.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Actually I meant calling him the creepy foreigner, although I’ll admit to knowing when I wrote it that you (probably) didn’t call him that to his face.

            To be serious for a brief moment, though, Texas didn’t conquer–oops, what state do you live in? Whichever it is, I’m reasonably sure Texas didn’t conquer it. The history of conquest here may be old but it’s still bitter. You, in all innocence, happened to stick your foot right into it and the guy could’ve cut you a little slack over it, but I do understand how deep the feelings run.

            Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m pretty sure Great Eddie has already extended his rule throughout your house, surrounding islands and distant nation states. I doubt the sun ever truly sets on Great Eddie. One of my best friends lives in England and he explained why he started referring to himself as being English. I won’t steal your thunder, lest Great Eddie begin a conquest of Mimi and Mumu’s territory here in the states. Fun post. Have a good weekend.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hmmm. Does the sun ever set on Great Eddie. I’m inclined to think it does–and that he looks forward to it as an opportunity to extend his territory. I won’t give in to his demand for a boat, though, so Mimi and Mumu should be safe.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I saw that video a while ago, courtesy of http://www.anglotopia.net and it certainly enlightened me about one or two aspects of “Britishness” that I hadn’t realised existed – and I’m thoroughly British. Well English actually – and a bit Welsh – oh, and a bit Cornish too…

        Us “mainlanders” do get confused about the status of the Channel Islands and the isle of Man. For example, to the extent that some people have been daft enough to pay out money to dubious investment schemes that are based in those places and are then surprised when a) they lose their money and b) the standard UK financial compensation rules don’t apply, so they have to apply to the Jersey/Guernesy/Isle of Man financial regulators to (maybe) get their money back.

        Liked by 1 person

          • I think its because, although those parts of Britain have the monarch as their head of state (Elizabeth II at present, of course), they are not politically part of the United Kingdom, and have always had their own governments that are independent of Westminster in most respects – the major exceptions being matters of defence, foreign relations and currency. So they are responsible for their own financial matters – they decide their own taxes for example. As ever, its all bound up in history. When you come to think of it, it’s odd that the Channel Islands are “British”, given that they’re so close to France, but long ago, when the English kings lost most of their possessions in France, the Channel Islanders decided to keep their allegiance to the English crown and not the French one – and it’s been like that ever since. What a messy world it is.

            Liked by 2 people

            • The world is messy, and somehow we–or at least I–keep expecting it to be neat. When will I learn? Thanks for the history. I’ve wondered about it in passing but never thought to look into it. I had assumed they were once more tightly tied to the central government but were cut loose at some point. Knowing that they’ve always had their own governments–that presents a more coherent picture.

              Liked by 1 person

    • “God, not wanting to micromanage” Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! :D
      What caught me in your blog, Ellen, was caring what Americans think – then watching this video brings it home: “Great Britain” is so big, why would they care at all what we think? Glad I found you – you make me think, and that’s more important <3

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am seriously tempted to print out copies of this blog post so that I can make people read it any time they ask me about the different between GB and UK. Given that most people I have this conversation with insist on telling me I am English (by which they mean British) despite my telling them I am from Scotland, I feel like the GB and UK distinctions might be too advanced for them.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. So, when I (a USA American) opined in a comment on an earlier post of yours that I thought it became GB when James united Scotland and England, I was correct? Cool! And the UK refers to GB plus Northern Ireland? Got it. Where do Canada, Australia and New Zealand figure into this? And why New Zealand? Is there an (old) Zealand?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Working from the top down: 1. Congratulations. Remember that post about British quizzes? You just won this one. 2. Canada and friends are part of the Commonwealth, along with a bunch of other countries. For the full explanation, scroll down the comments until you find adadinsane’s link (it stands out because of the blue lettering) which will explain it all. Seriously. 3. As for old Zealand, that’s in the Netherlands and seems to be spelled Zeeland.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. The discussion about who within the UK is actually British reminds me of the one about the term Yankee. To someone from another country, a Yankee is an American from the USA. Here in the USA, it’s someone from the North (as defined at the time of the Civil War). For a Northerner, it’s someone from New England. For a New Englander, it’s someone from Vermont. Or so I’ve read. Point being, if you drill down far enough, there’s a core group, surrounded by several larger levels. I expect it’s that way with many countries.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks for an interesting post and all interesting comments!
    In Sweden we say “Storbrittanien” which in translation would be GB but I’m not sure what we mean by that. We also say England, but then I think we mean England and not Scotland, but I’m not sure of that either. It’s confusing. You have a beautiful big island anyhow, UK,GB, England, Scotland, Wales or whatever we should call you :)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s funny that I’m reading this now because just the other day I was wondering what the deal was with all of these terms- England, Great Britain the UK…. I never know what’s what. In fairness I did put it on my mental list of things to look up, just haven’t gotten there yet.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Really? That’s interesting. I was watching The Last Kingdom and I was like ah ha, is that why they call it the United Kingdom? All of that fighting, separation, then the victor wanted it all for himself and declared it one united kingdom? Like I said, have yet to look it up but that seemed to make sense to me at the time…

        Liked by 2 people

        • The name United Kingdom goes back to the 1700s, when James of Scotland became king of England as well, following Elizabeth I, who as the virgin queen reasonably enough had no children. That united England and Scotland. When Ireland became independent and Northern Ireland bailed out and became part of Britain. So that made it the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Wales (this pisses me off and I’m not even Welsh) is considered part of England, since it was conquered. Ditto Cornwall.

          Liked by 2 people

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