People often have difficulty in deciding which words to use to describe various geographical and political entities within the geographical area known as the British Isles (including Ireland). There are many pitfalls in the terminology, which can be politically sensitive. The following aims to reduce the chance of unwittingly offending natives of the area.


A geographical term referring to the islands off the north-west coast of continental Europe, including the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, groups such as the outer and inner Hebrides, Shetlands and Orkneys, and countless others. The southernmost islands are the Channel Islands (though these are not universally regarded as belonging to the group), and the northernmost the Shetlands. Geographically the Faeroes (which belong to Denmark) might be regarded as part of the archipelago, but from an English usage standpoint they are not generally included in the term. The use of "British" in this context does not indicate that all the islands now belong to Britain, any more than the phrase "Irish Sea" implies Irish sovereignty over that stretch of water. Many people in Ireland nevertheless dislike the phrase; unfortunately there is no alternative term likely to be widely understood.

Map of the British Isles The British Isles

Map of Great Britain

Great Britain, showing also the principal islands politically linked to it.

GREAT BRITAIN. Used by cartographers to denote the biggest of the British Isles, containing most but not all of England, Wales and Scotland. The usage goes back to Roman times ("Britannia Major", distinguished from "Britannia Minor", ie Brittany in France). It also forms part of the official title of the United Kingdom, in which case it means the political entities of England, Scotland, Wales, including the offshore islands which belong to those countries. Because of the possible confusion between these two usages, "the British mainland" has been suggested as the least ambiguous term for the major island itself.

BRITAIN. The informal name for the United Kingdom. The following extract from the OED gives the historical background to the usage:

"After the Old English period, Britain was used only as a historical term, until about the time of Henry VIII and Edward VI, when it came again into practical politics in connexion with the efforts made to unite England and Scotland; in 1604 James I was proclaimed 'King of Great Britain'; and this name was adopted for the United Kingdom, at the Union in 1707."

BRITISH is the formal designation of the nationality of citizens of the United Kingdom, and of certain others. Unexceptionable when used to describe the English, Scottish or Welsh, but not to be used about those referring to themselves as Irish. See also NORTHERN IRELAND.

BRITON, BRITISHER, BRIT. None of these nouns is universally acceptable. The first is now rarely heard, and verges on the archaic; the second is widely perceived as a non-native usage; the third is colloquial, and like the second may be regarded as disparaging by some.

ENGLAND. The biggest and most populous of the four countries making up the United Kingdom, and historically the most powerful. The main pitfall with the word and its adjective, "English", is its unwitting use as a substitute for "Britain". This gives offence to most people from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. "Englander", except in the political epithet "little Englander", is regarded as a non-native usage.

THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND. The official name for the nation informally referred to as Britain. Often abbreviated to "the UK". The term "United Kingdom" only became the official title in 1801, when the Act of Ireland united Britain and Ireland. It had however been in use since 1707, when the Act of Union incorporated Scotland with England and Wales into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Map of the UK
(The red boundary line is schematic: it does not purport to show the extent of the UK's territorial waters.)

Map of Ireland
IRELAND. As used by geographers, the second largest island of the British Isles. Also the title in English of the independent republic which occupies 84% of the land area of the island. In the Irish language this state is called √Čire, a name which is not recommended for use in English, though it is often heard. From 1922 to 1937 it was called the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann), a term still used by some but now carrying political overtones and therefore to be avoided except in historical contexts. In many contexts it will be clear to the listener or reader whether "Ireland" means the whole island or just the Republic. Where it is necessary to distinguish between the two possibilities, use "the Republic of Ireland", which has the advantage of being endorsed by the Irish government itself. (One or two Irish readers of this guide have queried that statement in the past. "The Irish Republic" is an informal version often heard. One also sometimes hears "Southern Ireland" or "the South" referring to the Republic. Neither term is recommended; they may give offence, and they are inaccurate, since the northernmost point of the island is in County Donegal, in the Republic. They could also be taken to mean that part of the island south of, say, the Wicklow hills.

NORTHERN IRELAND This is not the place to go into the complex history and political circumstances of Northern Ireland, except so far as necessary to describe the linguistic pitfalls which arise from them. The north-east portion of the island of Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and is officially called Northern Ireland. Whilst nearly all of those who live there are legally British citizens, strangers are advised to avoid using the adjective "British" in relation to someone from Northern Ireland unless they are sure it will not be resented. Those who favour unification of the province with the Republic of Ireland are more likely to refer to it as "the north of Ireland" or "the six counties". Northern Ireland is sometimes also referred to as "Ulster", the name of one of the four historical kingdoms (later provinces) of Ireland, but to do so may also be regarded as politically contentious; the modern borders of NI do not coincide with the historical borders of Ulster, which included three other counties now in the Republic.

Whilst generally speaking it is the Roman Catholics who are in favour of a merger with the Irish Republic, and the Protestants who desire a continuation of the union with Britain, it is advisable to use the terms "Nationalist" and "Unionist" respectively as the most neutral terms for the two bodies of opinion. "Republican" tends to be used for that sector of the Catholic/nationalist population that supports the IRA and its political arm, Sinn Fein, whilst "Loyalist" is often applied to members and supporters of Protestant/unionist paramilitary groups.

CHANNEL ISLANDS, ISLE OF MAN. Note that the Isle of Man (adjective: Manx) and the Channel Islands (i.e. the separate bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey) are not part of the United Kingdom, but are classified as Crown Dependencies. They each have their own legislature, system of laws, and taxation, and they are not represented in the UK Parliament. Nor are they members of the European Union, though they do have special trading rights with it. The UK is responsible for their defence and for their international relations, and the inhabitants of all the islands are British citizens with the right of abode in the UK.

SCOTCH. The following is extracted from Mark Israel's FAQ for alt.usage.english:

Scots' preferred adjective for Scotland and for themselves is "Scots". "Scottish" is also acceptable. But "Scotch" (although used by Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, and still used by some Americans of Scots descent) is now considered offensive by many Scots. Certain Scots hold that only three things can be "Scotch": "Scotch whisky", "Scotch egg", and "Scotch mist". They are not interested in considering additions to this list, although many other terms containing "Scotch" can be found in dictionaries.

The term "Scotch tape" (a trademark for clear sticky tape made by the 3M company, based in Minnesota) was originally a reference to the stereotype of Scots miserliness. 3M at one time made a tape with no adhesive along the middle. The tape was intended as a masking tape for painting cars (masking off areas that you didn't want to paint), so 3M thought it didn't need a full sticky coating; but customers were not impressed.


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Last revised: October 2004
© John Davies, 2004