Why Britain is called Britain

Every so often someone searches the internet asking why Britain’s called Britain and the question lands them in the surreal territory that makes up Notes from the U.K. It’s a sensible question, and it makes a nice change from the related (and way more common) questions about why Britain’s called great. (Answer: ‘cause it’s bigger than the single-patty, quarter-pounder Britain. And it comes with a slice of pickle. Would you like fries with that?)

I’ve been meaning to research the question but put it off because it promised to be complicated. And it fulfilled that promise. It is complicated. Allow me, please, to make it worse.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, Britain is the “proper name of the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales, c. 1300, Breteyne, from Old French Bretaigne, from Latin Britannia, earlier Brittania, from Brittani “the Britons” (see Briton). The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant “Wales.” If there was a Celtic name for the island, it has not been recorded.”

Are you confused yet? If not, go back and read that again, because you should be.

Good. If you’re now in the right state of mind, we’re take that mess apart, spread the pieces out on the living room floor, and look at them as carefully as if we expected to understand them. I doubt we’ll get all the parts back where they started, but what the hell, we didn’t write the definition so it’s not our problem. We might just figure out how it worked (if, in fact, it did work) before we pulled it all to pieces.

But before we dismantle the thing, I should let you know that I’ve made labels so we can sort the bits into categories. A lot of them could as easily go in one pile as another, but we need some sort of system if we’re going to keep this organized.

Wish me luck.

Marginally relevant photo: This is Britain, or a bit of it anyway. The picture doesn’t explain anything, but it is what we’re talking about.

The Romans and the Britons

What we’ve got so far, if you read between the lines of that not-very-well-organized definition, is that Britain was named by the Romans, who invaded the place in the first century C.E. and claimed naming rights.

Stop. What’s this C.E. business?

Like many of you (that’s a guess, but humor me), I learned to divide history into B.C. and A.D., using a system that take the birth (or is it death?) of Christ as the dividing point for all time everywhere. I was taught that the initials stood for Before Christ and After Death, which seems to leave the period when he was actually alive a blank, but never mind. It was a good way to remember which set of initials was what.

A.D. actually stands for Anno Domini, Latin for the year of our lord—or so I was told by a teacher who was probably as Jewish as I was and am, but the system was so rigidly in place at the time that neither of us commented on the strangeness of claiming a god who wasn’t ours and using him as our marker. Whatever B.C. really stands for, I’m sure it’s Latin as well, but a quick rattle through Dr. Google’s knowledge pills didn’t leave me any wiser and it’s a side point anyway. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, we’ll stagger forward.

Decades after I learned about B.C. and A.D., I was working as a copy editor for a major publishing house. (I’m retired, much to the publishing world’s relief, and any inconsistencies in style that you find here are because I don’t get paid to care anymore. Wheeeeeeeeeee.) Their encyclopedias were sold in many countries and to many cultures. They needed to be inclusive, so they used C.E. (the Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of A.D. and B.C.

C.E. / B.C.E. is an attempt to keep what as far as I know is the dominant dating system but without assuming that the entire world takes Christ as its reference point. But introducing a new system confuses the hell out of people over I’m not sure what age—and possibly under it. I’m sorry about the confusion. It took me a while to get used to it too, but there’s nothing like getting paid to help a person get on top of a new way of thinking. Now that I’ve made the transition, I like system, but I always feel like I need to explain.

At length, unfortunately.

And as another side point, the Muslim world starts its dating system from an entirely different point: the year Muhammad moved from Quba’ to Medina. So I could be wrong about what the dominant system is. Maybe it’s just been the dominant one in my life. Which is easy enough to mistake for the entire world.

The earliest dating systems tended to use rulers as their reference points—something along the lines of “In the third year of the rule of King Idogar the Insignificant…” That meant that different countries used different reference points and any single country used different reference points at different times. It made piecing the quilt of world history together a nightmare, since after a few centuries no one knew when old Idogar reined. So both the Christian and Muslim systems were massive improvements, giving everyone a stabilized way to track time, even if they both assumed their religions were and always would be the center of everything.

Onward. Or possibly backward to what we were talking about before I so rudely interrupted myself.

When the Romans landed in Britain, the place was inhabited by Celtic tribes—the Britons mentioned in the definition—who don’t seem (emphasis on seem; we can’t know) to have called it “Britain.” What did they call it? Dunno. They would’ve called it something more specific than “home.” They traveled to Europe (more about Europe in a minute), and Europeans traveled to Britain, so everyone involved would’ve needed a name for it. When you step outside of a place, you do need a way to talk about it. And Britain’s an island, which makes it distinct enough that it would’ve screamed out for a name of its own.

But what mattered more than the island at the time was what tribe a Briton belonged to or what tribe’s territory an outsider landed in. Britain wasn’t a united country. It wasn’t a country at all. Whatever it was called referred to the geography, not any political grouping.

As (yet another) a side point, no one had a name for Europe back then. They had names for its parts, but they didn’t think of the whole. It’s not a place with clear geographical borders, so naming it would have been like naming half your hand: It’s just not something most of us feel a need to do. Plus it’s big. No one at that time, as far as I know, would’ve traveled completely around it. So—to use a different comparison—naming it would’ve been like naming yourself and six inches of the air around you. This isn’t a territory most of us need a name for.

What people named were the parts—the places where they and people they knew about lived.

So the Romans invaded Britain and claimed naming rights, and in the process of naming the place named its inhabitants. We don’t know if the pre-Roman Britons had a group name for themselves. Until they were invaded, and probably for some time after, they’d have been more likely to see the differences between their tribe and the neighboring tribes than the samenesses.

The tribal names have come down to us from the Romans as the Iceni, the Cornovi, and so on and on and on. But those names use Latin forms. At best, they’d be Roman manglings of what the tribes called themselves and at worst complete impositions. One of the tribes is called the Setantii. I don’t know Latin, but that sounds suspiciously like the Italian word for 70—settanta

Why call a tribe 70? Once again, dunno. We’d have had to be there. Maybe that wasn’t what it meant at all.

But let’s go back to the word Britain, which comes from Brittania (however you want to spell it). It seems to come from an earlier word, Prettanoi or Prittanoi. And now it’s time to move over by the coffee table, because we’re going to put our pieces on a new pile.

The Celts, the Greeks, and the tattoos

One source says the name Prittanoi (however you choose to spell it) came from the Britons’ “Celtic neighbours in Gaul (modern France) and we know that they had a very similar language. Prettanoi was a native [that means Celtic] word meaning ‘painted people’, and the Prettanoi called the island where they lived Albion, ‘the white land’. [I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, grain of salt here. It’s on the shelf in the kitchen. Thanks.] Later Greek and Roman writers began to call the island Britannia, meaning ‘land of the Britons (Prettanoi).’”

Wikipedia (never mind the link—it will all have changed by now) says (or once said) that the word Prettanoi came to us from the Greek explorer Pytheas, who sailed around the British Isles (quick geography lesson: that includes Ireland) between 330 and 320 B.C.E. and that the word may have come to him from the Gauls.

Another source, and I’ve lost track of it by now—sorry; I’ve looked up too much closely related stuff and it’s all cross-fertilizing—says the word meant “the tattooed people.” The British tribes were known for painting themselves blue, at least when they went into battle, which they allegedly did naked. Spend a winter here and you’ll understand why I say “allegedly.” It’s not Minnesota, but speaking only for myself, I wear clothes and am damn glad to have them.

Some Roman sources claim the tribes didn’t just paint themselves but were tattooed, and a different Wikipedia entry translates Prettanoi as “the painted or tattooed people.” And, for whatever it’s worth, the BBC says that when the Normans invaded, they found the British (I’m not sure which British: the Anglo-Saxons or the Celts or both?) still tattooing themselves, and the Normans took up the habit from them. I’m not sure when they stopped, but I can tell you that they’ve started again, with (as far as I know) no sense that they’re carrying on a longstanding national tradition.

That second Wikipedia entry I mentioned also raises doubts about the word Prettanoi having anything to do with blue paint or tattoos. It links it to the Welsh word pritu (“ Proto-Celtic kwritu,” if that means anything to you), which meant “shape” or “form.” “This leaves us with Pritania,” it says.

Welsh is a descendant of the language spoken by some of the Celtic tribes (we’ll get to why I say “some of” eventually), so looking at Welsh makes sense , but I have no idea why “shape” or “form” would seem like a good name for an island or a people. I admit that both have a shape, but so do most solids.

Okay, when we took that apart, we kind of wrecked it. But what about Albion meaning “the white land”? One source (and again, I’ve lost track of which one; do you honestly care?) says the word’s probably Celtic but related to the Latin albus, meaning white, as in the white cliffs of Dover (presumably), because the land itself is green. That would mean the link to whiteness comes from Latin, not any Celtic language. Celtic and Latin are two very different, very unrelated languages.

I’m willing to believe that a Celtic word sounding roughly like Albion got mixed up with the Latin word meaning “white” and before anyone knew what had happened they were all as confused as I am. Or as you are if you’ve been following me closely.

But let’s not take ourselves too seriously. I have the sense that there’s a lot of guesswork going on here. And that from time to time serious explanation edges over into pure fantasy.

But we’ve wandered. You should know better than to leave me in charge.

If some of the Britons’ neighbors called them the Prittanoi or something vaguely like it, it’s no great surprise that it stuck. Many groups of people have been landed with names (often insulting ones) given to them by their neighbors. The Saami people used to be called Laplanders. The Inuits were called the Eskimo. The Ojibwe were called the Chippewa. They’ve only recently started to insist that the world call them by the names they call themselves.

For the Prittanoi, though, it’s too late. Whatever they called themselves is lost, and so are they.

More about the Celts, a bit about the Greeks, and nothing more about tattoos

While we’re talking about the Celts, let’s back up a bit and ask who they were.

The word describes a group of tribes who ran around Europe before anybody started taking notes. They can be traced back to the upper Danube around 1,400 B.C.E

According to one source, the Celts started arriving in in what’s now Scotland around 900 B.C.E. Which doesn’t mean all the Celts left Europe. One source (I no longer care which one; I’ve lost the will to link) says the Celts were in Austria France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Western Germany, Northern Spain, Turkey, and Hungary in 400 B.C.E. Not that any of those countries existed, but the Celts were in place and absolutely panting for them to be invented.

But another source says the Celts probably arrived in Britain in two waves: the Goidelic-speaking Celts (that means the tribes who spoke one version of a somewhat common language, and I can’t pronounce the word Goidelic either) between 2000 B.C.E. and 1200 B.C.E. and the Brythonic-speaking (that’s the other version) Celts sometime between 500 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E.

Flip a coin. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. They got here. That’s all we need to know for now.

The Cornish, Welsh, Gaelic, and Breton languages are descendants of what we now call Celtic.

So why do we call it Celtic? Some sources claim the word Celt (it’s pronounced kelt; have I mentioned lately that English is insane?) comes from the ancient Greek keltoi, meaning “barbarian.” I doubted that because I happen to know that the English word barbarian comes from the Greek barbaros, meaning–you guessed it– “barbarian.” To the Greek ear, anyone who didn’t speak Greek must’ve all sounded like they were saying “bar bar bar baar bar bar bar.”

Where does keltoi come into it, then? Possibly nowhere. When I tried to find a translation, I came up with several people writing on the assumption that it did mean barbarian but not actually translating the word. Which made me—cynic that I am—even more suspicious. One site that looked like it was actually going to translate it ended up telling me about yew trees instead. So for a while there, I didn’t think I could find any proof the word even existed.

Ah, but I knew you were waiting, so I pressed on and found some online dictionaries of ancient Greek.

Now, ancient Greek uses—surprise, surprise—the Greek alphabet, and one dictionary offered me an on-screen keyboard. I don’t know Greek (my vocabulary’s made up of a few food words and a few insults, plus the words for and and barbarian), but I can stumble through parts of the alphabet, so I picked out the word κελτοι and hit Search.

A new screen appeared and said my search for κελτοι had come up blank.

Well, yes, I could see why it might’ve. I don’t know what alphabet that is or whether it’s used on this planet, but it ain’t Greek.

Fine. I found a dictionary that would accept transliterated words and typed in “keltoi.”

New Screen. Great excitement, because we were about to have a revelation.

The word means “Celtic.” Or “Gallic,” since that’s what the Romans called the Celts in what the Romans called Gaul, which covered what’s now France and Germany and a bunch of other places that didn’t have any political existence or possibly even separate names yet.

So the word Celtic derives from a Greek word meaning “Celtic,” which for all I know was taken from a Celtic word meaning “Celtic.”

Do you feel like we’re going in circles here?

Fine. We’re lost. But it’s okay, because we’ll just accept that Celt either comes from a word meaning “Celt” or from thin air and we’ll go on to talk about the part of the definition we started with, which says, “The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant ‘Wales.”

Reinforcing that, another source says that around 1200, Briton meant “a Celtic native of the British Isles,” or “a member of the tribe of the Britons.”

The Angles, the Saxons, and the Normans, but still no more tattoos

To make sense of that, we need to talk about a few more invasions.

The Romans, when they were still running Britain, brought in mercenaries who belonged to a couple of Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, and ceded land to them, which they settled. I don’t know if they pushed the Celts out of those lands at this stage or not, but I’m willing to guess that the good land suddenly wasn’t in Celtic hands.

After the Romans withdrew, more Angles and Saxons invaded or migrated—take your pick—into Britain. Between them, the Angles and the Saxons pushed the Celts into the corners of Britain—Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.

The Angles eventually gave their name to England, which gradually became a country instead of a gaggle of small kingdomlets. That much seems clear. Not to mention shockingly simple.

Then Anglo-Saxon England got invaded by the Normans, who came from France but were originally Norse, which is the origin of their name.

Almost nobody in this tale ever leaves well enough alone. Especially (and I do know this although I don’t do much about it) me.

That brings us to the part of the definition we opened with where it says the word Britain came back into use from the Old French, which had preserved the Roman name. If that’s true, what did the Angles and Saxons call the place?

One of the 607 Wikipedia entries I got lost in says that in Old English—that’s the language of the Anglo-Saxons before and for some time after the Norman conquest—it was called “Bryttania.” Then it goes on to talk about the word Britannia re-entering the language from Old French, which the Normans spoke and which eventually merged with Old English to give us the glorious mess of a language that we have today.

How is Bryttania different from Britannia? Ignore the spelling, because spelling was a liquid back then. Most people couldn’t read and those who could treated spelling as a creative activity. C’mon, they didn’t have TV. They had to do something.

So let’s shove the spelling difference over a cliff. The two words look the same to me. Maybe the talk about the word re-entering from Old French is because French is what the conquerors spoke, so even if they used was the same word, the Norman version was the one that mattered. But you remember how I said things shade over into fantasy pretty quickly? I’m helping the process along here, because although that explanation sounds sensible I have no idea if it’s true.

We’re almost at the end here. Do you feel certain of anything anymore? If so, you haven’t been paying attention. So let’s end with a reminder from the BBC, which at least will take us back to a reliable source:

“Before Roman times, ‘Britain’ was just a geographical entity, and had no political meaning, and no single cultural identity. Arguably this remained generally true until the 17th century, when James I of England and VI of Scotland sought to establish a pan-British monarchy.”


Okay, that’s everything I know, and a bit more. If you’d help me get this mess off the living room floor, I’d appreciate it. Just drop it in the trash can as you go out. And have a good Friday the thirteenth. If you want to make corrections, add facts, or subtract facts, I’d welcome it. On the other hand, if you just want to tear your hair and moan, I’ll understand it. And on the third hand, if you want to complain, I’ll understand that as well.

How to pronounce British place names

A handful of British place names are spelled the way they’re pronounced. Britain, for example. Also England, Scotland, Cornwall, and Northern Ireland. Even Wales, although it could just easily be Wails or Wayles. But then Britain could be (and as a last name actually is) spelled Britten. And Cornwall could be Kornwall. It derives from the Cornish word Kernow, so you could make a pretty fair case for it.

I won’t go on. Are there any words in English that can’t be spelled at least one other way?

Never mind. The situation’s complicated enough without me making it worse, because once you brush those few clear place names out of the way, you’re reduced to guesswork.

Irrelevant photo: I'm not sure what these are, but they're in bloom right now.

Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what these are, but they’re in bloom right now.

It was in response to a post about the British sense of humor that Dan Antion suggested I write about the war between the pronunciation of British place names and their spelling. Who wouldn’t get the connection? The whole island’s having a good laugh at the rest of the world. When no one’s listening, they say things like, “Har har, all those foreigners think Derby is pronounced Derby.”

How do they pronounce Derby? Why Darby, of course.

Why don’t they spell it Darby? Because, as the kids used to say where I grew up, and don’t look for anything as boring as an explanation to follow that because. There is none, and that’s the point. The adult world didn’t make sense and because was as good an explanation as the kids gave. Or got, I suspect. Things were the way they were. If you pushed the kids (and I did once or twice; I was the kind of kid who just had to), they’d escalate to a frustrated “just because,” which was followed by a silent but strongly implied you idiot.

And so it is with English spelling. It’s spelled that way because it’s spelled that way.

As an aside (and I’ll get to our topic eventually), my first Google search on the subject took me to a web site whose headline was, “English spelling is easy.” Sez whoo? (Or hoo. Or even whou.) English spelling not only isn’t easy, it isn’t even marginally sensible. All those kids being taught phonics? When they find out that nothing in English works phonetically, they’ll never trust a human being again.

All that creates enough of a problem when we’re wrestling with words we recognize—you know: tough, though, thought—but with place names the problem’s magnified. Because the country’s always throwing new ones at you, and an outsider doesn’t stand a chance.

Outsider, by the way, means citizens and foreigners alike. As far as pronouncing place names go, you can wave your birth certificate or your naturalization papers all you want, but they won’t help. Once you leave your familiar ground behind, you’re an outsider.

Time for a few examples.

Dan wrote, “In an earlier post of mine, about the doors at Barkhamsted Reservoir, my friend in England commented: ‘Here in the U.K. it would be spelled Berkhampstead (there is such a place!) and still pronounced Barkemstead!’ I’ll never understand. I’m blaming England for the way the people near Boston pronounce Woburn, Massachusetts (woo-burn).“

And in case you think spellings change when names cross the Atlantic while the pronunciation stays the same, you’re wrong: You can’t find consistency even there. The British Birmingham is pronounced Birming-am: the American one is Birming-ham. The spelling stays the same.

In response to Dan’s comment, John Evans wrote, “I used to live in the West Midlands, which includes the county town of Warwick (famous for its castle). This is pronounced Worrick. However, even British people don’t know how to pronounce the names of places that aren’t in their own locality. Thus, one day a truck driver from Lancashire (NW England) on his way to Warwick stopped and asked me ‘Is this the road to War-wick?’ He would have done any American proud—apart from his broad Lancashire accent, that is.

“And Barnoldswick in Lancashire is of course pronounced Barlick!”

Val, from Quiet Season, wrote, “In Shropshire they’re still arguing about whether Shrewsbury is pronounced shroosbury or shrowsbury, and some people still argue over whether a scone is pronounced skone or skon.”

Think she’s exaggerating? In 2015 the BBC staged a debate on how to pronounce Shrewsbury and invited people to vote. I’m sure they had a huge audience and even more sure that everyone went on pronouncing it exactly the way they had before.

Around here, Widemouth Bay is pronounced Widmuth. You hear that and think you see a pattern, don’t you? Silly you. Sandymouth is pronounced Sandymouth. A bit further away, in Devon, you’ll find the town of Teignmouth, pronounced tin-muth. The River Teign and its valley, though, from which the town took its name, are pronounced teen. The local authority (that’s the government) is teenbridge. I’d have sworn there was a third pronunciation, tane, but D., who told me about this to begin with, swears there are only two. Sad, isn’t it? I so wanted three, but what can you do?

Instead of going on to give you a list of absurd spellings, I’ll give you a few links, because the work’s been done for me. Several times over. For starters, you can look at BBC America and Anglotopia. If that’s not enough, google “pronunciation British place names.” Have fun.

In the meantime, let’s go in a different direction and talk about the spelling system that led to this mayhem. A few thousand years ago, when I was younger, someone explained it to me by saying that English pronunciation was still a liquid when its spelling was turned into a solid, and it’s the mismatch that did all the damage: The spellings stayed fixed while the pronunciations flowed away from them. As liquids will.

Or at least, abandoning my metaphor, the spellings changed more slowly than the pronunciations.

In the interest of minimal honesty, the explanation I actually got didn’t include the metaphor and may have been clearer that way, but it was less fun. According to what I now read, however, the process wasn’t that simple. The English Spelling Society has a fascinating web site on the history of English spelling and traces our current spelling back to Geoffrey Chaucer (who died in 1400, in case you don’t have that date fixed in your brain). Before then, everything that mattered in the country was written in French. Chaucer wasn’t responsible for the shift to English but he was around to give it a good hard shove. Thanks, Jeff.

Or Geoff. This is English. Who’s to say?

Chaucer’s English isn’t an easy read for—well, me for one, and let’s pretend briefly that I’m typical of something: the modern English-speaking reader in this case. But the Spelling Society seems to think his version was better than what followed. The scribes and clerks of the day were used to writing French, so they imported French spellings—double, table, and centre, for example. And if that didn’t make things murky enough, when the first English printing press was imported, printers came over from Belgium to run it, and since English wasn’t their first language they added some spelling errors, including, the article says, spelling a word pronounced eny as any. Plus they were paid by the line (and sometimes, more altruistically, wanted to lengthen a line to make the margins look better), so they might spell hed head, or fondnes fondnesse, and so forth.

(An interruption here: The article said they made spelling errors, but since no particular spelling was either right or wrong at the time, just more or less readable, I suspect they’re importing a modern concept to the discussion.)

The article goes on from there—read it on the web site; it’s not long and it is fascinating—until by the time the first Elizabeth was on the throne people were spelling words pretty much any way they wanted to. Which eliminates the need for spelling tests but slows down a person’s reading speed until they feel like a driver in a very thick traffic jam.

(They as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, by the way, isn’t something new. It was in common use until sometime in the nineteenth century. You needed to hear that today, didn’t you?)

We’ll skip a few important steps and jump ahead to Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking dictionary of 1755, in which he struggled heroically to standardize the mess he’d been handed and—well, folks, here we are. I doubt most of us would have done any better, given what he had to work with, but Derby is still pronounced Darby.

Why? Just because.