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For an explanation of terms such as Great Britain, British, United Kingdom, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, see British Isles (terminology).

The word Britain is an informal term used (for brevity or convenience) when referring to;

The word British generally means belonging to or associated with Britain in one of the first two senses above (i.e. the United Kingdom or the island of Great Britain). However, the term has a range of related usages, as described in this article.


[edit] Earliest attested references

[edit] Etymology

[edit] Britain

The etymology of the name Britain is thought to derive from a Celtic word, Pritani, "painted people/men", a reference to the island's inhabitants'<ref>Pytheas c.330BC: "Isles of the Prettanike"; Diodorus Siculus c.50BC: "those of the Pretani who inhabit the country called Iris (Ireland)"; Later Romanised as "Brittania"</ref> use of body paint and tattoos. If this is true, there is an interesting parallel with the name Pict, from the Latin word of the same meaning. The modern Welsh name for Britain and the Picts is Prydain. The Goidelic form was Cruithin, showing that the Common Celtic singular form was *qruitanos. The root is presumably that of modern Welsh pryd "shape, form" and Irish cruth. In 325 BC the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia visited a group of islands which he called Prettaniké, 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, but it does seem to attest pre-Roman use of the name by Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the islands.

In keeping with the mediaeval penchant for etymologising country names in terms of eponymous heroes, British historians of the late mediaeval and early modern periods charted the history of the nation from Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan war, who founded Britain just as Aeneas' descendant Romulus founded Rome, Frankus France, and so forth. The life of Brutus, anglicised as Brute, was recorded in the literary tradition of the Prose Brute. This was accepted as the etymology of Britain well into modern times.

[edit] Great Britain

The original reference seems to have been to the territory in which the Brythonic languages were spoken, which more or less coincided with the Roman province of Britannia, an area equivalent to modern England, Wales and, for a short period, southern Scotland. In the Early Middle Ages speakers of a Brythonic language which later evolved into Breton migrated from Cornwall to Armorica, Western France, possibly because of pressure from Saxon invasions. This is why different forms of the same name apply to insular Britain and continental Brittany. In French the similarity is even more obvious: Bretagne and Grande-Bretagne.

Geoffrey of Monmouth used the names Britannia minor to refer to the Armorican region and Britannia major for the island. The element great in the term Great Britain thus simply means large, to make the distinction from Brittany.

[edit] Historical evolution

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 Brittaine" (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.

Politically then, British has been used to describe someone or something from Great Britain since the formation of that state in 1707. British was also used to describe members of nations that formed part of the British Empire. This use now, however, could be seen as justifying the colonial era, even if only applied historically. The Kingdom of Great Britain was united with the Kingdom of Ireland 1801, which was already ruled by the British monarchy — to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

[edit] Modern use

Britain is commonly used to refer to the modern United Kingdom. This is not strictly accurate, because the United Kingdom only makes up part of the British Isles and is split across islands other than Great Britain. For example, this page [2] on the 10 Downing Street website refers to 'Britain's' 51 Prime Ministers; this BBC news article [3] refers to 'Britain's' chances in the 2012 Olympics.

The modern use of the term 'British' is as an adjective to describe someone or something from the United Kingdom. It is officially used as the term to describe the citizenship of the United Kingdom. Such a person is a Briton. Nationalists across the island(s) may reject the term in favour of their national description.

It is also frequently used to describe residents of the United Kingdom's current colonies. By the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 all residents of the United Kingdom's remaining colonies have been eligible for British citizenship, making the term particularly apt.

British occurs in the legal term British Islands. This was coined to describe all of the islands of the British Isles, excluding those that form part of the Republic of Ireland, when they act together as a political whole.

Historians and political commentators normally use "Britain" as the short form of the legal term "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", preferring it to "United Kingdom." Thus "the British government", "British cinema" or "British literature" (but "English literature" where the reference is to the English language or literature of England). The term "United Kingdom" may be used to indicate geography, as "a road map of the UK" or "the coal mines of the UK."

Geographically, the term can be used in various ways:

  • To describe someone from the island of Great Britain.
  • In the term British Isles (see supra), the traditional term for the entire archipelago of islands that lie off the north west coast of France, of which Great Britain and Ireland are the two biggest.
  • The term has historically been used to describe someone or something from the British Isles. Because of the above mentioned potential for offence, this rarely happens today. For example the British Lions a rugby team which draws players from the United Kingdom and Ireland has been renamed the British and Irish Lions.
  • Sometimes British applies to an area or territory currently or formerly governed by or a dependent territory of the United Kingdom, for example the British Virgin Islands, the British Indian Ocean Territory, or British Columbia which is now a province of Canada.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes


[edit] Sources and further reading

[edit] External links

cs:Británie de:Britannien fa:بریتانیا ga:An Bhreatain kw:Breten la:Britannia nl:Brittanië pl:Brytania simple:Britain tl:Britain


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