England...Britain...Great Britain...The UK...The United Kingdom...The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland...The British Isles... There is no nation in the world called "Great Britain." There's none called "Britain" either though there kind of is. It's complicated. This may sound strange and contrary, but it's all true. There was once a nation-state of just Great Britain, but not for over 200 years now; there has been no nation-state called England for over 300. The United Kingdom as it exists in modern times is a compound of four member countries. Yet it is a matter of much frustration to many of their residents in particular those from the nation's smaller constituent countries, but to English people too that the terms "Britain", "Great Britain" and "United Kingdom" remain not only often synonymous with each other but, most annoyingly, with "England" in the minds of foreigners (and many ignorant natives...). The distinctions between all these frequently overlapping and vaguely similar-sounding names can be lost on many people, meaning the different terms are frequently used interchangeably, but the political and cultural structure of the kingdom is rather more complicated than that. At present, it is thus (see the image below right for a visual representation):
Before we delve into details, C. G. P. Grey has a good (if slightly wrong) summary of the issue, as well as an introduction to the relationship between all of these, the Crown, the Crown Dependencies, the Overseas Territories, the Commonwealth Realms, and God. Yes, God.
If something is English, it is British; but the reverse is not always true: if something is British, it is not necessarily English. So, if you refer to someone from England as being "British", you are correct but don't make the mistake of thinking everything about the English is therefore representative of the British as a whole (see Logical Fallacies). Some historical context, where it gets even more confusing.
"English" was for a long time an accepted generalisation for the whole country, including Scotland and the British parts of Ireland; this is reflected in several foreign names for the nation to this day. The word 'England' (and its foreign equivalents such as Angleterre) derives from Angle-land, after one of the successive waves of Germanic and Norse peoples the Angles and Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Danes and Norwegians who invaded from northern Europe in the centuries of the 'Dark Ages' after the withdrawal and fall of The Roman Empire. Still earlier though, the tribes who controlled most of the south of the country were those known as the Brythonic Celts: specifically, the Celts of Cornwall and Wales (and the aforementioned Brittany in France), to distinguish them from the Gaelic Celts of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. It is from them that the Romans named the whole island Britannia. Thus, "British" for about the first millennium AD means 'Celtic', and is contrasted with "English" for instance, the legendary King Arthur was far from being the proto-King of England many would describe, since the Anglo-Saxons were those very invaders that he and his Brythonic brethren sought to repel. A curious upshot of the above is that the various Celtic nationalists today, who object to being called "British", are British in that sense, whereas England is not!
'British' in the modern sense was basically invented when King James VI of Scotland became also James I of England when he succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603 and united the two thrones. Nowadays, the technical usage states that 'Britain' is simply a collective term for everything that can be British; it is now used explicitly as an extension covering everywhere presided over by they who preside over Great Britain and so, technically, places like The Falkland Islands and Gibraltar are in Britain. This isn't really held up, though, for obvious reasons. So who can we really call 'British' now?
English people usually don't really care whether they're called English or British. However, "British" is arguably used much less than it used to be, and people often tend to call themselves "English", or, if being pedantic, "UK citizens". Some left-leaning/liberal people in particular dislike "British" because of the imperial connotations (British Empire, British Army, etc.), in comparison with the nicer connotations of "English" (country lane, green field, pub, etc.). English nationalists, on the other hand, who tend to be (but are not always) right-wing, may also object to it, especially now that Scotland seems to be sort of heading for independence (although many a Canadian will say "Yes, and Quιbec has been a sovereign state since 1995."). "Brit" can seem slightly derogatory, but "British" is usually OK. Some people from Cornwall, the south-west tip of England, with its own distinct Celtic heritage, do not identify as "English", preferring "Cornish". Tread carefully. While English and some Welsh people will generally refer to themselves as British, the Scots and Northern Irish frequently won't, possibly because they weren't part of the Roman 'Britannia' and tradition has stuck. (While those from the North of England like to insist they weren't actually conquered by the Romans, so can sometimes be bracketed with the Scottish and Irish in this respect, they may equally well choose to say they are British even more because of this fact.) If you refer to a Scot or a Welshman as "British", the vast majority will just accept this, although the more nationalist may insist on a local term. Whatever happens, "British" is right, and "English" is not. Apart from being separated by borders, this is (as touched upon above) because the Scottish Highlanders and the Welsh, plus the Irish, Manx (of the Isle of Man) and Cornish can trace their heritage back to the Celts who inhabited these isles since before the Romans, let alone the 'English', camenote whereas the 'native' English descend mainly from the consecutive Germanic and Norman (read: stinkin' French) conquests, and can be, and sometimes are, still viewed as "outsiders" and "invaders" by more radical nationalists in Wales or Scotland. Hence Sassenach, Gaelic for "Saxon" and a derogatory Scottish word for English person.note Lowland Scottish culture is also mainly of Germanic origin (south-east Scotland has been Germanic as long as England has), and the dialect, Scots, is of English unlike Gaelic, which used to be the Highland language, and is still spoken in a few areas. Also, the far north of Scotland (Orkney, Shetland and part of Caithness) has a more Scandinavian heritage it was after all closer for the Vikings and though its language, Norn, died out in the 19th century, some Orcadians and Shetlanders still insist they are not Scottish.
Of course, time and interbreeding have long eroded the 'pure-born' of these races, and focusing on descent is a quick way to commit political suicide and get branded a racist in modern politics, even among nationalists. Northern Ireland, famously, is where terminology is especially contentious. If you refer to a Nationalist-minded Northern Irish person as "British", you may get chewed out. If you fail to refer to a Unionist-minded Northern Irish person as "British", you may get chewed out. "Ulster" is a loaded term, being mainly used by Unionists and giving the appearance of historical legitimacy to the province, which is rejected by Nationalists, especially as it makes up only 2/3 of historical Ulster: Counties Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan are part of the traditional province, but are now part of the Republic of Ireland.note . "Ulsterman" may thus be taken as offensive by NI Nationalists and Republicans, or by citizens of the ROI although, in truth, a lot of people in the Republic are less bothered by this sort of thing. "Northern Irish" is usually a good neutral choice, although some extreme Republicans will vehemently not use it, and insist on "the occupied six counties" or some similar formulation. Exercise maximal caution, generally. If you refer to someone from The Republic of Ireland as British... well, don't. Just don't. Aside from being generally incorrect, as the ROI does not have anywhere near the concentration of British-descended persons in its population as Northern Ireland does, it's mainly because... well... it's a completely different country, it's considered impolite. At best.note Using "English" is basically the same. Some Irish people object to the geographic term "The British Isles" as well, seeing it as implies Ireland is politically "British" (i.e. part of the UK), and prefer "The British and Irish Isles". So I think we've got that whole "British" thing straight. Remind me, then, where does "England" come in?
Under no circumstances should the UK as a whole be referred to as "England", which hasn't been an independent country since 1707. It is wrong. Don't do it. Don't. This is a message many would like to get across to other nations, some of whose name for the UK in their own languages is exactly the word for England. Whether you're an overseas tourist or a politician or a movie star, please don't talk about the "English" response or the reception you receive in "England" when you mean the UK. If you're a pop star, don't come on stage in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast and scream "Hello, England!" (and for the love of all that is holy don't shout "Hello, London!") there is no quicker or more brutal way to lose an audience. If you're a comedian, you might just get away with it. (Yell "#*@% the English!", on the other hand, and they'll probably carry you off shoulder high...) Seriously, though. If you get all this wrong, you will be forgiven. It's an easy mistake to make. There is a reason for it. England does cover over half of the UK's total land area, and does contain the vast majority (around 51 million out of 61m, currently) of its population. Even Brits get mixed up often enough after all, even the title of this article is wrong: "Britain" and "the UK" technically refer to the same thing; it should read Great Britain Versus The UK and until More Recently Than They Think it was accepted practice (at least by the English) for "England" and "Britain" to be interchangeable terms. Just watch out for the Scots. They long have a reputation as being 'the hard lot from up north.' Some of them are nationalists and will not tolerate one step out of line, saying it arises from the Union, which is the root of all evil. Some are unionists... who will not tolerate a step out of line, because it undermines the Union and drives people into the arms of the Nats. Some of them, we shan't name any names, have a reaction resembling an enraged Dalek. DO-NOT-BLAS-PHEME! Oh good. It's all quite simple really, isn't it?
Hmmm. Ish. Even using the terms "British" or (say) "Scottish" isn't always enough, even when they're both correct. You've got to use the right term in context. Many Scots, nationalists or otherwise, can get really infuriated with English sports commentators when they refer to an athlete as "bringing the gold home for Britain!" yet conversely to the same athlete as "the plucky Scot, coming in fifth...". Received wisdom says that the predominantly London-based media hail any Scot's or Welsh or Northern Irish person's sporting success as "British", but (possibly unconsciously) shunt the same person off into the ghetto marked 'Scottish', 'Welsh' etc. should they trail in last. This subtrope is personified by tennis player Andy Murray: the joke/complaint goes that he is invariably referred to as British when he wins and Scottish when he loses. (The converse happens as well: English when they win, British when they lose.) More generally the national sporting team situation is predictably complicated. Demonstrating the density of this naming confusion, the UK's Olympic team competes under the name "Great Britain and Northern Ireland", but its International Olympic Committee country code is just GBR, and it is routinely referred to as merely "Team GB" following a sort of reductive continuum that helps perpetuate the whole confusion that necessitates this page. In cricket the 'England' team technically represent England and Wales, while there is for instance a separate Ireland team that nonetheless sees not infrequent shifts of player loyalties to England. In association football meanwhile, the 'Home Nations' of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland play as separate teams. In the sports of rugby union and rugby league, the various Irish issues are cut admirably straight through: a single unified Ireland team represents the whole island, featuring players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic; in addition, a super-unified British and Irish Lions rugby union team periodically assembles, Avengers-style, to tour other countries. In the likes of tennis (for Davis Cup etc.) and as noted the Olympic Games there is a combined British (i.e. UK) team. Two of these conflicting methodologies clash and cause particular problems for football at the Olympics, where the UK has traditionally not entered the football tournament for fear that fielding a unified British team would be regarded as 'setting a precedent' that could lead to the individual nations losing their right to separate teams the rest of the time. The fear is so bad that the Scottish, Welsh and [Northern] Irish Football Associations were united in support of entering an all-English football team in the London 2012 Olympics as part of "Team GB". With devolution (the transferring of certain legislative powers to local governing bodies (the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly) and increasing Scottish and Welsh nationalism, even the English are getting more and more picky about these matters of designation. Many English people get annoyed when people from the UK are either "Scottish" (and occasionally, if they're lucky, "Welsh" or "Northern Irish") or "British", but rarely "English"... at least, not in any positive context. The frustration is that the English are often only separated out when it comes to criticism: for example, Americans may talk about getting independence from "the English" as if the Scots and Welsh had nothing to do with it. There are also more and more English who dislike the use of the UK's Union Flag or national anthem God Save The Queen in relation to purely English matters, for example English sports teams.
Let's not even get started on the "West Lothian question": the idea that a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish member (MP) of the UK Parliament in London can still vote on policies that, since devolution, purely concern England and not their home region when responsibility for the policy area (e.g. health, education) is devolved there to a regional legislative body. That is, if such policy is separately governed locally by the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or Northern Irish Assembly, these MPs' decisions can not affect their own constituents yet they can still affect the electorate in English MPs' constituencies, even though the reverse is not possible. This tramples on the Great British Sense of Fair Play. Hold on, there's more...
The auspices of the United Kingdom extend beyond just Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK also has fourteen British Overseas Territories scattered across the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic (e.g. The Falkland Islands) and good old Gibraltar, which are under its sovereignty, but not as part of the United Kingdom itself. Americans can consider them much like Guam or Puerto Rico are to the USA, although, naturally, there are differences. Closer to home, there are the three Crown Dependencies too: the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey (which between them cover The Channel Islands) and the Isle of Man. These are all possessions of the Crown, i.e. subject to the British monarchy, which must give final assent to their laws, but are not within the United Kingdom politically; each has its own Chief Minister and body for internal legislation, although all are treated as part of the UK for British nationality law purposes and are dependent upon it for international representation, defence etc.
Despite having this quirk, the Isle of Man is part of the geographic British Isles, lying in the middle of the northern Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. A generic application of "Britain" will usually take in the Channel Islands as well, although the latter lie some way off on the far side of the English Channel, just off the northern French coast. The actual legal status of these three micro-states is insanely complicated.