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.
BRITISH ISLES. 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
The British Isles
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
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.
(The red boundary line is schematic: it does not purport to show the extent
of the UK's territorial waters.)
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 Éire, 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. A thorough justification of it can be found in
the footnote The Correct Name For Ireland.) "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
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
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
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.
Thanks are due to Mark Israel, Brian Goggin, Padraig Breathnach, and to many other contributors
to the alt.usage.english newsgroup who made invaluable comments on earlier
drafts of this document. Responsibility for errors and omissions lies with the author,
and suggestions for its improvement should be directed to him at