Britain...Great Britain...The UK...The United Kingdom...The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland...The British Isles...England... There is no nation in the world called "Britain" or "Great Britain." This may sound strange and contrary, but it's 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):
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). 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 now tend to call themselves "English", or, if being pedantic, "UK citizens". Some left-leaning/liberal people dislike "British" because of the imperial connotations - "British Empire", "British Army", etc., in comparison with the nicer connotations of "English" ("country lane", "pub", etc.). English nationalists, on the other hand, who tend to be (but are not always) right-wing, also object to it, especially now that Scotland seems to be heading for independence. "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. 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 noted above) because the Scottish Highlanders and Welsh can trace their lineage back to the lands before the 'English' came. note Native Welsh and Scottish Highlanders, plus the Irish, Manx (of the Isle of Man) and Cornish, are descended from the Celts who inhabited the isles since before the Romans, whereas the 'native' English descend mainly from the successive Germanic (Angle, Saxon, Jutish, Frisian, Danish and Norwegian), 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 related to 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, but its language, Norn, died out in the 19th century (some Orcadians and Shetlanders 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. 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 historic legitimacy to the province, which is rejected by Nationalists, especially as it makes up only 2/3 of historic Ulster. "Ulsterman" may thus be taken as offensive by NI Nationalists and Republicans, or by citizens of the Republic (although, in truth, a lot of people in the Republc 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 Republic of Ireland does not have anywhere near the concentration of British-descended persons in its population as Northern Ireland does, and also because... well... it's a completely different country, it's considered impolite. note At best. Using "English" is basically the same. Some Irish people object to the geographic term "The British Isles" as well — seeing it as implying Ireland is politically "British", i.e. part of the UK — and prefer "The British and Irish Isles". 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, 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 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! Even using the terms "British" or "Scottish" isn't always enough, even though they're both correct. You've got to use the right term in context. Many Scots, Nats or otherwise, can get really infuriated with English sports commentators, who will 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 will often 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 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 complicated. In international cricket, football, and rugby, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play as separate teams (the situation in rugby union is even messier, where a unified Irish national team features players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and in addition to the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish teams that play in tournaments a unified British and Irish Lions teamnote tours other countries and plays their individual local teams). In athletics, tennis and the Olympic Games there is a unified British team. This causes particular problems for football at the Olympic Games, where the British team has traditionally not entered the football tournament for fear that fielding a unified British team would lead to the individual nations losing their right to separate teams in higher-profile football tournaments. The fear is so bad that the Scottish, Welsh and Irish actually allowed the English FA to enter an all-English football team in the 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, the English too are getting more and more picky about these things. 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 Union Flag or "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, the MP's decisions can affect the electorate in English MPs' constituencies - though the reverse is not possible - yet not their own constituents, if such policy is separately governed locally by the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or Northern Irish Assembly. When you get into historical contexts, 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 foreign names for the country such as Angleterre. Even further back, "British" was a term referring specifically to the Celts of Cornwall and Wales (and Brittany in France, whence the name), to distinguish them from the Gaelic Celts of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. Still earlier, before the Anglo-Saxons, the British tribes controlled most of the south of the country as well, so the Romans named the whole island Britannia. 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.
The Isle of Man is part of the geographic British Isles, though, lying in the middle of the northern Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland and 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.