Language Matters - June 5, 2017 - 4 min

Navigating the British Isles: A Lexical Guide

The terms Britain, United Kingdom and England, among others, are a source of confusion for many people outside (and even inside) the British Isles. With so many overlapping names and entities, it is no surprise that people have trouble choosing their words when talking about these islands and their inhabitants. In this article, we will look at these different names, what they mean and how to use them.

The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom, officially called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is a sovereign state consisting of four countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However, this doesn’t disqualify the UK from being a country in its own right. In many international contexts, the word country is often understood as a territory (or state) under the control of a sovereign government, which would make it a synonym of sovereign state. And since most countries are, by any definition, also sovereign states, there is generally no need to distinguish between each concept. So England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales may be considered “countries within a country”, a situation arising from their unique history.

The Countries of the UK

England is by far the largest of the four countries, both in population and geographical size. As the biggest and most influential actor, it essentially absorbed its smaller neighbours in the creation of the United Kingdom. The UK government has always been based in England’s capital, London, while the other countries have had varying degrees of autonomy throughout the course of their unions with England. Because of England’s dominant position, the word “England” has, especially in the past, been used to refer to the UK as a whole, although this should be avoided since it marginalizes the other countries and is inaccurate.

Historically an independent sovereign state, Scotland definitively united with England in 1707, forming the Kingdom of Great Britain. Scotland’s parliament in Edinburgh moved to the Palace of Westminster in London to join its English counterpart and was assimilated into the English parliamentary model. Scottish popular opposition to union was strong, although it had been the result of mutual agreement between each country’s government. More recently, a devolved Scottish parliament was created and Scotland has regained some of its former legislative autonomy from England.

Ireland and Northern Ireland
Ireland’s status as a sovereign state lasted until 1800, when it came under the control of Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The process resembled that of the union with Scotland, with the abolition of the Irish parliament in favour of the British parliament at Westminster. However, this was partially reversed more than 100 years later in 1922, when the larger, predominantly Catholic part of the country became a sovereign state once again (now the Republic of Ireland), while the northern part (Northern Ireland) remained in the United Kingdom. This partition was the source of an ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland. Although it is still part of the UK, Northern Ireland’s population contains people who identify as British and others who identify as Irish; they are generally eligible for citizenship of either country.

Unlike the other countries of the United Kingdom, Wales had never been fully sovereign and definitively came under English control in the 15th century, much earlier than Scotland or Ireland. The status of Wales as a country has occasionally been questioned, with some sources referring to it as a “principality”. However, it is generally understood to be a country in both Wales and the UK as a whole, and official Welsh and UK government sources confirm this.

Other Entities

The British Isles
British Isles is a geographical term referring to two large islands: Great Britain and Ireland, as well as the many small islands that surround them. Great Britain is the largest island and comprises England, Scotland and Wales, while Ireland comprises Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Although generally uncontroversial in the UK, the term British Isles is more contentious in Ireland, seen by some as a relic of the UK’s historical dominance and no longer relevant given the reality of a fully sovereign Republic of Ireland: the adjective British means “of the United Kingdom” or “of Great Britain”, and the Republic of Ireland is part of neither. A number of alternative names have been proposed, such as Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA), or simply UK and Ireland.

The British Islands
British Islands is an administrative term coined to account for the particular status of three jurisdictions within the British Isles: the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. These island jurisdictions are not sovereign states, but rather Crown dependencies of the United Kingdom with a high degree of legislative autonomy. They are not part of the United Kingdom, although the British government is responsible for many of their affairs and their people are British citizens. The term British Islands is generally not used outside the context of the Crown dependencies and is not considered an acceptable alternative to British Isles.

What to Say

The table below shows a list of names and their corresponding adjectives, with a summary of how to use them.

Noun Adjective Description
UK British
(or UK)
Any person or thing from any of the countries of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales). To be avoided if referring to the Republic of Ireland, and may be contentious in the case of Northern Ireland, given that some Northern Ireland citizens identify as Irish.
Britain British
Generally synonymous with UK/British, usually limited to informal or commercial contexts.
Great Britain (Great) British  Usually limited to geographical contexts in reference to the island of Great Britain. To be avoided if referring to people or culture; “Are you from Great Britain?” would sound unusual to most British people.
Scotland Scottish Any person or thing from the country of Scotland. UK/British is also applicable since Scotland is part of the UK, but Scotland/Scottish is preferable when speaking about people or things that are exclusively from Scotland.
Wales Welsh Any person or thing from the country of Wales. UK/British is also applicable since Wales is part of the UK, but Wales/Welsh is preferable when speaking about people or things that are exclusively from Wales.
England English Any person or thing from the country of England. England accounts for more than 80% of the UK’s population, and even English themselves people sometimes use UK/British and England/English interchangeably. Nonetheless, this is inaccurate and should be avoided when referring to people or things that are not undoubtedly and exclusively from England.
Ireland Irish Any person or thing from the Republic of Ireland or, in geographical contexts, the entire island of Ireland. Using Ireland/Irish in reference to the people or culture of Northern Ireland may cause offence to those who identify as British rather than Irish, while UK/British may have the same effect on those who identify as Irish. Simply using Northern Ireland as a noun or noun modifier is usually the safest approach, as in “The Northern Ireland Assembly” or “the people of Northern Ireland”.
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