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. Hmmm, right so lay it out for me simply, will you?
At present, it is thus (see the image at right for a visual representation):
- The British Isles (a geographical term) are a collection of islands off the north-west coast of continental Europe, upon which sit two sovereign states the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and also the Isle of Man (see below), which has a peculiar status all its own.note
As a geographic term, it includes the area of the Republic of Ireland (which is not 'British'), without implying any territorial claims. However, most Irish people (except Unionists) dislike the term, for understandable reasons. Clunky replacement terms such as the "North-West European Archipelago" have been suggested, but haven't caught on. Modern use in socio-geographical contexts (e.g. in textbooks) may simply refer to the group neutrally under the compound name of its two principal landmasses Great Britain and Ireland, although this neglects those many smaller islands traditionally included in the "British Isles". Politicians when talking of matters concerning both nations generally just say these islands.
- Great Britain (a geographical term) is the largest of those islands, upon which sit the countries of: England (taking up the centre down to the bottom); Wales (the fat, slightly pointy protrusion on the lower middle-left, sticking out to the west); and Scotland (taking up the top of the island). The numerous small islands scattered around its coastline the Isle Of Wight, Anglesey, the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides, the Isles of the Clyde, the Northern Isles, etc. are all (bar the Isle of Man) part of these three and are usually lumped in with GB for convenience.
To call someone "Great British" is practically unknown. The only context in which a collective term for the three GB countries is really necessary is Northern Ireland, where Great Britons are often called "Mainlanders".
- Ireland (a geographical term) is another island, comprising: the Republic of Ireland (which is also often called simply Ireland, the correct short form), an independent nation; and Northern Ireland, part of the UK.
- Northern Ireland (a political term) takes up, as the name implies, (part of) the northeast of Ireland. It is often referred to as Ulster, though this can be politically sensitive as not all of the old Irish province of that name is actually inside Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland are divided about 60/40 between Unionists, mainly Protestant, who feel they are Brits; and Nationalists, mainly Catholic, who feel they are Irish, and currently the ruling coalition mandatorily incorporates parts of both sides. Anyone born in NI can choose to have British, Irish, or dual citizenship since the Good Friday Agreement to stop everyone killing each other. note
- The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (a political term, one of the longest nation titles in the world but known as the United Kingdom for short or UK for shortest) comprises the island of Great Britain and its associated islands, and Northern Ireland. It has over 60 million people within its four constituent countries (though only England and Scotland are consistently referred to as 'countries'; Wales is still sometimes described as a 'principality' and Northern Ireland tends to be called a 'province'), and is a nation state and a fairly major player in world affairs.
The UK was created in 1707, as "The United Kingdom of Great Britain", after the Act of Union between England and Scotland Wales does not get a mention as it had long since been legally annexed by England, in the 1530s. It became "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" upon the Union with Ireland in 1801. The change to the present name came following the treaty creating the separate Irish Free State in 1922; the latter is now known as the Republic of Ireland (see below).
- "Britain" (a geographical or political term, depending) has two meanings; (i) colloquially, as an abbreviation for Great Britain, and (ii) more formally, though confusingly, as a catch-all abbreviation for the United Kingdom. "British" does officially denote someone from any part of the UK, although some may object to being so-called: thus, a Northern Irish person is legally British (politics aside), even though not from Great Britain. This is because there is no precise single word to describe "a citizen of the United Kingdom", so "British" is the most convenient shorthand; a more accurate term would be "UK-er" or "Kingdomite", say, but there is no such term in practice. note
- The British Islands (a rarely used legal term) refers to the UK, the Isle of Man, and The Channel Islands, the last of which are not part of the geographic British Isles.
- The Republic of Ireland (a political term) takes up the majority of the island of Ireland and is a separate country from Northern Ireland. It is no longer part of the UK, which has caused what might charitably be called "a spot of bother" or two in the past. "Ireland", confusing though this is, is the correct official name of the country, though 'Republic of Ireland' (with a capital R, sometimes abbreviated ROI) is frequently used to differentiate the state from the island. Another common, though faintly patronising, way to get round this is to use the Irish word for Ireland, "Ιire", when referring to the country. Saying Ιire (airer) is the greatest way to avoid confusion and now the Irish seem to be more grateful when it is used, treating it almost like some sign of respect.
All right in short, to summarise the most common error:
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 You Fail Logic Forever). So what's so "Great" about any of this then?
Of course, the existence of a "Great" Britain suggests the existence of a "Mediocre" Britain somewhere else that it needs a superlative to be distinguished from. A misconception that the term implies 'really rather jolly good' is perpetuated by slogans and titles that happily play on it, e.g. "the Great British Sausage" or The Great British Bake Off. In fact, the "Great" in this instance just means 'large' or 'main', to distinguish the island from that smaller nearby geographic area once known as Lesser, Less or Little Britainnote the region of Brittany, now the northwest corner of France (Bretagne, as opposed to Grande Bretagne), formerly semi-independent, often fought over throughout history. Breton, the ancient language of Brittany (now largely replaced by French), is Celtic; closely related to Cornish (see below), and more distantly to Welsh, it is therefore "British" in a linguistic sense. All right, I broadly get all that so far. Can you give me some better historical context, though?
Yes, although this is where it maybe 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" is much the older idea, and for about the first millennium AD means 'Celtic', and is contrasted with "English" for instance, the (probably) 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. So who and what can we really call 'British' and 'Britain' now?
Nowadays, the broad 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. 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, as may nationalists from any other part of the UK. "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. Many from the 'Celtic fringe' of the UK in general won't identify as 'British', possibly because they weren't part of the Roman Britannia and tradition has stuck. (Whilst those from the North of England like to insist they weren't actually conquered by the Romans, so can sometimes be bracketed with the Celts 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 and although on a kind of cultural level this may be correct depending on your point of view, from a strict legal perspective, this is wrong, as Scottish and Welsh people are all British citizens, as are the vast majority of Northern Irish.note 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 to reach and though its language, Norn, died out in the 19th century, some Orcadians and Shetlanders still insist they are not Scottish.
Of course, centuries of 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.
Note that in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland the terms 'Unionist', 'Loyalist', 'Nationalist', and 'Republican' are all distinct and loaded. Unionists want to remain a part of the United Kingdom; Loyalists are militantly committed to that belief. Nationalists want to be unified with the rest of the Republic of Ireland; Republicans are militantly committed to that belief. Loyalists are Unionists and Republicans are Nationalists, but not all Unionists are Loyalists and not all Nationalists are Republicans. There are also subtle political differences between all four of these categories which just confounds the matter further.note
If you refer to a Nationalist-minded Northern Irish person as "British", you may find you are seriously wrong. If you fail to refer to a Unionist-minded Northern Irish person as "British", you may find you are seriously wrong. "Ulster" is a commonly-used synonym for Northern Ireland, yet a loaded one, 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 two-thirds 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 demographically 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, why shouldn't I just call the whole thing "England"? (Joke.)
Grrrr. 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. You've just wiped three countries from the face of the map. 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...) I'm sorry. I'll try not to say anything at all, it sounds safer.
Seriously, though, if you get all this wrong, you will usually 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 53 million out of 63m, 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. Hey. 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.) Yes, wait a minute: what about all those England sporting teams and so on?
Oh yes, the national sporting situation is predictably complicated. Demonstrating the density of this whole 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" just the 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 (which is objectively a much better side, owing to the greater enthusiasm and thus funding and resources for cricket in 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 assembles every four years, Avengers-style, to tour the countries of the sport's Southern Hemisphere superpowersnote . 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 a particular problem, for association football (soccer) at the Olympics. 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 four individual nations losing their right to have separate teams the rest of the time. The fear is so bad that, when it was decided to enter a "Team GB" football side (for the first time in decades) for their 'home' Olympics at the London 2012 Games, the Scottish, Welsh and [Northern] Irish Football Associations were united in support of entering an all-English team.note On the other hand, the fielding of a unified British team for rugby union, which will return to the Olympics in 2016 in the cut-down 'sevens' formatnote , was no problem for the International Rugby Board the IRB endorsed the concept of a combined British Olympic sevens team back in 2011. Why the football associations can't similarly just ask international federation FIFA for a signed note saying "It's not now, and will never be, a problem with us either" is beyond comprehension. Well OK, at least the political arrangements are simple compared with that.
Ah. 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 if responsibility for the policy area (e.g. health, education) is devolved there to a regional legislative body. That is, when 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. Oh for heaven's sake. Is nothing straightforward? Well what about all those other islands and micro-territories Britain owns they've got to be 'British' at least, haven't they?
Yes. No. Sort of. Aaargh. All right, the auspices of the United Kingdom definitely extend beyond just Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK 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.note Closer to home, there are the three Crown Dependencies too: the Bailiwick of Jersey & 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 they 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 geographically part of the British Isles nonetheless, lying in the middle of the northern Irish Sea between Great Britain and Irelandnote . 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, where the British Government has no authority, yet the Queen does, is insanely complicated. Some idea of the complexity: the island of Sark, a semi-autonomous part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, was the last remaining feudal state in Europe until 2008. The island has a population of roughly 600.note The Isle of Man has the world's oldest continuous parliament, and is not a member of the European Union, and it has its own version of the pound not interchangeable with the British one... having said that, Manx coins will occasionally find their way into the UK proper and be accepted without comment as they look almost identical and are identical in value.note And, perhaps most famously, it is popularly thought to have no road speed limits, although it does.note I...I think I've got all that.
So, now you know. That's all straightened out nice and clearly then, isn't it? See also Scotireland and The Irish Question.