British Isles (terminology)

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History; Geography of Great Britain

An Euler diagram clarifying the terminology. ██ Geographical locations.██ Political entities.
An Euler diagram clarifying the terminology. ██ Geographical locations.██ Political entities.

The various terms used to describe the different (and sometimes overlapping) geographical and political areas of the islands traditionally referred to collectively as the British Isles are often a source of confusion. The purpose of this article is to explain the meanings of and inter-relationships among those terms.

In brief, the main terms and their simple explanations are:

  • Geographical terms
    • British Isles consist of Great Britain, Ireland and many smaller surrounding islands. There are some problems associated with the use of this term and its definition.
    • Great Britain is the largest island of the archipelago (sometimes informally referred to as Britain)
    • Ireland is the second largest island of the archipelago.
  • Political terms
    • The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a sovereign state occupying the island of Great Britain, the small nearby islands (but not the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands), and the North-Eastern part of the island of Ireland. Often shortened to 'United Kingdom', 'UK' or Britain.
    • Ireland / Republic of Ireland is a sovereign state occupying most of the island of Ireland.
    • England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the constituent countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
    • Great Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland
    • England and Wales share the same legal system.
    • British Islands consists of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

These various terms can be confusing not only in themselves (partly owing to the similarity between some of the actual words used), but also because they are often used loosely or inaccurately.

Terminology in detail

  • Britain is a shortened form of Great Britain. Also used very commonly to mean United Kingdom.
  • Great Britain (abbreviation: GB) is the largest of the British Isles and the political union of three nations, these being:
  • England and Wales Is a political and administrative term referring to the two home countries of England and Wales, which share the same legal system. Between 1746 and 1967 the term "England" did legally include Wales.
  • England (see also the historical Kingdom of England = England (and later, Wales) prior to 1707).
  • Wales
  • Scotland (see also the historical Kingdom of Scotland)
  • The historical Kingdom of Great Britain is Britain for the period 1707-1801.
  • Britannia is the Roman province of Britain, or a poetic reference to later Britain, or a personification of Britain.
On the history of the name, see Britain.
  • The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, usually shortened to the United Kingdom (abbreviation UK) is Great Britain plus Northern Ireland since 1927. (The Partition of Ireland took place in 1922, but the consequent change in the official title of the UK was only made by Act of Parliament five years later.)
  • The historical United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is Great Britain plus Ireland, for the period 1801-1927.
N.B.: While "United Kingdom" is normally abbreviated UK, the official ISO 3166 two-letter country code is GB and the three letter code is GBR (Ukraine has the two letter code UA and the three letter code UKR). The UK's internet top-level domain is .uk, a break from the normal practice of following ISO 3166.
See also United Kingdom (disambiguation) for other united kingdoms and UK (disambiguation) for other meanings of the abbreviation.
  • Ireland (in Irish, Éire) refers, geographically, to the island of Ireland, or to any of the following:
  • The Kingdom of Ireland was Ireland for the period 1541-1801.
  • The Irish Republic was a unilaterally declared 32-county republic encompassing the entire island, during the period 1919-22. During this period, Ireland legally remained part of the UK and its independence was not recognised internationally except by Russia.
  • Southern Ireland was a proposed Home Rule 26-county state under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. It never came into practical existence, being superseded by:
  • The Irish Free State is Ireland excepting Northern Ireland during the period 1922-37.
The terms "Irish Republic", "Southern Ireland" , "the Free State" and (in English language texts) "Éire" are still used as synonyms for the Republic of Ireland.
  • Ireland (in Irish, Éire) is the political entity consisting of the island of Ireland excepting Northern Ireland, 1937-present. This is the name of the state according to the Irish Constitution.
  • The Republic of Ireland a legal "description" of Ireland excepting Northern Ireland, 1949-present. This form is used where tact or disambiguity demands. It is also the name used by the international football team.
  • Northern Ireland 1922-present. That part of the island of Ireland north of the line of partition of 1922, and which is still part of the United Kingdom. It is sometimes referred to as "the North of Ireland", "the six counties" or (in extremist usage) the "occupied six counties," especially by Irish Nationalists.
  • Ulster The name of one of Ireland's four traditional provinces. It contains nine counties, six of which make up Northern Ireland, and three of which are part of the Republic of Ireland. It is now primarily used in sporting and cultural contexts by both communities. However, Northern Ireland itself is frequently also referred to as 'Ulster'. See Ulster (disambiguation).
In sport
  • In soccer, the teams correspond to political entities: Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In accordance with UEFA and FIFA's rules, each of these countries has its own football league: the Football League and the League of Ireland respectively.
  • In rugby union, rugby league, field hockey , cricket, boxing, golf, athletics and others the Ireland team is drawn from the whole island (ie. both the Republic and Northern Ireland). The Irish Olympic Council is also an All-Island organisation. Many sports organisations are subdivided along provincial lines e.g. Gaelic Athletic Association, golf
  • The British Isles is the traditional term used to mean the island of Great Britain plus the island of Ireland and many smaller surrounding islands, including the Isle of Man and, in some contexts, the Channel Islands (Guernsey and Jersey). Due to the changes in the common usage of the word "British" (to mean "of the United Kingdom") it is a controversial term, and would be considered offensive by many Irish people, in 2006 the Irish minister for Education announced that school books would have this term removed.
  • Great Britain and Ireland is an increasingly common replacement or substitute for the term British Isles.
  • Islands of the North Atlantic is another suggested replacement term for the British Isles, without the same political connotations. However, its convolution, its vagueness, and the popularity of the older term have meant that it is not in common use. The term was used as part of the Strand 3 level of negotiations for the Belfast agreement. (Its acronym, IONA, is also the name of the small but historically important island of Iona off the coast of Scotland.)
  • British Islands (a political term not in common usage) is the UK, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey (which in turn includes the smaller islands of Alderney, Herm and Sark).
  • Brittany, the historical Duchy in the West of France, now a French région; for this modern administrative sense, see Bretagne.

Geographical distinctions

The British Isles

The British Isles is an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Continental Europe. It includes Ireland and Great Britain, and the Isle of Man, but usually excludes the Channel Islands. Also included are the thousands of small islands off the coast of both the larger islands such as Shetland and Orkney. The earliest known usage of this term is in a Greek text of 325 BC in the form Pretanikai nesoi (Pretanic isles).

Great Britain

Great Britain refers to the largest of the British Isles. The word "Great" simply means "larger" (no connection with "greatness" in other senses is intended) in contrast to Brittany, a historical term for a peninsula in modern France that largely corresponds with the present day French province of Bretagne. That region was settled by many British immigrants during the period of Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain, and named "Little Britain" by them. The French term "Bretagne" now refers to the French "Little Britain", not to the British "Great Britain", which in French is called Grande-Bretagne.


The second largest island in the archipelago is Ireland. That Ireland is a part of the geographical "British Isles" in no way implies that all of the island is politically British.

Channel Islands

Although the Channel Islands are associated with the United Kingdom politically, they are an outcrop of the nearby French mainland, and historically they are the last remaining parts of the former Duchy of Normandy still under the crown of the United Kingdom.

Political distinctions

The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is usually shortened to United Kingdom, UK or Britain. Great Britain is also widely used as a synonym for the UK.

The United Kingdom is a sovereign state. Its four constituent countries, whilst having equal rights to elect Members of Parliament on (nominally) the same terms, are sometimes considered to be of different status. This view may be supported by the existence of devolved governments with different levels of power in Scotland and Wales (see Asymmetrical federalism). Due to historical precedent, England, Scotland, and Wales are countries and nations in their own right (although none of these is sovereign today). Wales is also a principality of the United Kingdom ( Prince of Wales is a title usually given to the heir apparent to the British throne). Northern Ireland is sometimes described by United Kingdom citizens as a province of the United Kingdom, which derives from the Irish province of Ulster, which Northern Ireland is part of. This epithet is also applied because it originally was part of the UK as part of the country of Ireland rather than as a constituent country or nation in its own right. Northern Ireland also had, until 1972, a far greater degree of self-government than the other constituent parts of the UK. In contrast to the British unionist usage, Irish nationalists consider all of Ulster to be the province of Ulster, and organise their sporting and cultural institutions accordingly.

The four constituent parts of the UK are also known to some as Home Nations or the "Four Nations"; sporting contests between them are known as "Home internationals" (for example in football, see the British Home Championship).

The governing body for soccer in Northern Ireland is called the Irish Football Association, having been in existence since some 40 years before partition. Its counterpart in the Republic (plus Derry City FC) is the Football Association of Ireland. The Northern national team retained the name "Ireland" for some 50 years after partition. It is only since around 1970 that the two teams have been consistently referred to as "Northern Ireland" and "Republic of Ireland" respectively.

However, in Rugby Union, the four Home Nations are England, Ireland (the whole island, i.e. the Republic of Ireland plus Northern Ireland), Scotland and Wales.

Culturally, some consider the Cornish to be distinct from the English, but, politically, Cornwall is considered by the UK government to have the same status as any other county in England. However some have raised questions concerning the constitutional status of Cornwall.

Thus, Great Britain is both a geographical and a political entity. Geographically, it is one island, but politically it also contains the islands that belong to its constituent nations - England, Wales and Scotland (most notably England's Isle of Wight, Wales' Anglesey and Scotland's Inner Hebrides, Outer Hebrides, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands).

However, the abbreviation GB is sometimes officially used for the UK, for example in the Olympics - where athletes from Northern Ireland may choose whether to represent the UK or the Republic of Ireland - and as the vehicle registration plate country identification code, however the internet code " .gb", although allocated to the UK, is unused (the UK uses " .uk"). UK teams in the Olympics have competed under several different names - most recently in Athens the athletes were presented at the Opening Ceremony under a banner which said simply Great Britain, rather than the full Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Since the Good Friday Agreement, and the subsequent implementation legislation, sporting organisation (and several other organisations, e.g. tourism, and Irish Gaelic and Ulster Scots language boards) on the island of Ireland has increasingly been cross-border.

Citizens of the UK are called British or Britons. The term Brits may also be used, sometimes pejoratively, for example by supporters of Scottish independence when referring to supporters of the Union. Some rather dated slang names for Britons are Tommy (for British soldiers), Pom, Anglo and Limey. Anglo properly refers only to England, but it is sometimes used as a broader reference as an element in compound adjectives: for example, "Anglo-French relations" may be used in newspaper articles when referring to relations between the political entities France and the United Kingdom. Anglo-Saxon may be used when referring to the whole English-speaking world, the Anglosphere, although ethnically very few of the world's one billion English-speakers are of Anglo-Saxon origin. Interestingly while the rest of the world refers to the 'English', derived from 'Angles', speakers of the Celtic languages refer to them as 'Saxons' (Sassannach in Scottish Gaelic, Saeson in Welsh).


Ireland is the name since 1937 of the independent state which covers the island of Ireland apart from Northern Ireland. Since the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949, the term "Republic of Ireland" has been widely used, but the official name in the Irish constitution is Ireland, or, in the Irish language, Éire. This is also the geographical term for the entire island.

The Republic of Ireland gained full recognised independence from the United Kingdom in 1921. Northern Ireland is sovereign British territory, and a majority of the population of Northern Ireland consider themselves British. Traditionally Ireland is divided into four provinces - Leinster, Connacht, Munster and Ulster. The Republic of Ireland takes up 83% of the island, while Northern Ireland takes up six of the nine counties of Ulster. However, despite the label "Northern" Ireland, the most northerly point of the island is in County Donegal, territory of the Republic of Ireland.

On the island of Ireland (as everywhere), the naming of places often raises political issues. The usage of "Ireland" as the official name of the state in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland causes offence to some Unionists in Northern Ireland as it implies that the Republic of Ireland still has a territorial claim to the whole island - the terminology of "Republic of Ireland" or "Éire" is much preferred by Northern unionists when referring to that political state. Similarly, some Nationalists in Northern Ireland also prefer to reserve to usage of "Ireland" to refer to the whole island.

The Republic of Ireland is often referred to by Irish republicans by the term "the Twenty-six Counties", with the connotation that the state constituted as such forms only a portion of the ideal political unit, which would consist of all of the thirty-two counties into which the island is divided. From 1922 to 1937, the state comprising those 26 counties was officially known by the term "The Irish Free State".

Many people object to these latter two terms, as they are seen to imply that the Republic of Ireland is not a fully independent country. Conversely, some republicans and others refer to Northern Ireland as "the Six Counties" (in reference to Northern Ireland's six counties), a name that avoids the disputed link with Great Britain. Some even call it "the occupied six counties". Some nationalists use the terms, "the North of Ireland" and, "the North", instead of Northern Ireland; these are terms also used by the Irish national broadcaster RTÉ.

Many people, especially some unionists, sometimes refer to Northern Ireland as Ulster - this is inaccurate as the Irish province of Ulster traditionally includes an additional three counties, which are in the Republic of Ireland. The term Ulster (and "the Province") are sometimes preferred by Unionists, sometimes because it can suggest an origin of the polity of Northern Ireland that pre-dates 1922, referring back to the Act of Union 1800, the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the Plantation of Ulster in 1610, the ancient migrations between Ulster and Scotland, and even to biblical tradition. So, it is understandable that certain local place names should still be in dispute: see Derry/Londonderry name dispute.

British Islands

Under the Interpretation Act 1978 of the United Kingdom, the political term British Islands (as opposed to the geographical term British Isles) refers to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, together with the Crown Dependencies: the Bailiwicks of Jersey and of Guernsey (which in turn includes the smaller islands of Alderney, Herm and Sark) in the Channel Islands; and the Isle of Man.

Historical aspects

Origins of terms

The earliest known names for the islands come from the Massaliote Periplus of the 6th century BC, fragments of which survived in the writings of Avienus around AD 400. Ireland was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra, the sacred island, as the Greeks interpreted it) "inhabited by the race of Hiberni" (gens hiernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, "island of the Albions". Earlier sources preserve fragments of the travel writings of the ancient Greek Pytheas around 320 BC, and describe the British isles, including Ireland, as the αι Βρεττανιαι, the Brittanic Isles. The peoples of these islands of Prettanike were called the Ρρεττανοι, Priteni or Pretani.

These names derived from a " Celtic language" term which is likely to have reached Pytheas from the Gauls who may have used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands. The Romans called the inhabitants of Gaul (modern France) Galli or Celtae. The latter term came from the Greek name Κελτοι for a central European people, and 17th century antiquarians who found language connections developed the idea of a race of Celts inhabiting the area, but this term was not used by the Greeks or Romans for the inhabitants of Britain or Ireland.

Priteni is the source of the Welsh language term Prydain, Britain, and has the same source as the Goidelic term Cruithne. The latter referred to the early Brythonic speaking inhabitants of Ireland, the Scottish highlands and the north of Scotland, who are known as the Cruithne in Scottish Gaelic, and who the Romans called Picts or Caledonians.


Caesar's invasions of Britain brought descriptions of the peoples of what he called Britannia pars interior, "inland Britain", in 55 BC. Throughout Book 4 of his Geography, Strabo is consistent in spelling the island Britain (transliterated) as Prettanikee; he uses the terms Prettans or Brettans loosely to refer to the islands as a group - a common generalisation used by classical geographers. For example, in Geography 2.1.18, …οι νοτιωτατοι των Βρηττανων βορηιοτηροι τουτον ηισιν (…the most southern of the Brettans are further north than this). He was writing around AD 10, although the earliest surviving copy of his work dates from the 6th century. Pliny the Elder writing around AD 70 uses a Latin version of the same terminology in section 4.102 of his Naturalis Historia. He writes of Great Britain: Albion ipsi nomen fuit, cum Britanniae vocarentur omnes de quibus mox paulo dicemus. (Albion was its own name, when all [the islands] were called the Britannias; I will speak of them in a moment.). In the following section, 4.103, Pliny enumerates the islands he considers to make up the Britannias, listing Great Britain, Ireland, and many smaller islands. In his Geography written in the mid 2nd century and probably describing the position around AD 100, Ptolemy includes both Britain and Ireland – he calls it Hibernia – in the island group he calls Britannia. He entitles Book II, Chapter 1 of as Hibernia, Island of Britannia, and Chapter 2 as Albion Island of Britannia.

The name Albion for Great Britain fell from favour, and the island was described in Greek as Ρρεττανια or Βρεττανια, in Latin Britannia, an inhabitant as Βρεττανοζ, Britannus, with the adjective Βρεττανικοζ, Britannicus, equating to "British". With the Roman conquest of Britain the name Britannia was used for the province of Roman Britain. The Emperor Claudius was honoured with the agnomen Britannicus as if he were the conqueror, and coins were struck from AD 46 inscribed DE BRITAN, DE BRITANN, DE BRITANNI, or DE BRITANNIS. With the visit of Hadrian in AD 121 coins introduced a female figure with the label BRITANNIA as a personification or goddess of the place. These and later Roman coins introduced the seated figure of Britannia which would be reintroduced in the 17th century.

In the later years of Roman rule Britons who left Latin inscriptions, both at home and elsewhere in the Empire, often described themselves as Brittanus or Britto, and where describing their citizenship gave it as cives of a British tribe or of a patria (homeland) of Britannia, not Roma. From the 4th century, many Britons migrated from Roman Britain across the English Channel and founded Brittany.

Medieval period

While Latin remained the language of learning, from the early medieval period records begin to appear in native languages. The earliest indigenous source to use a collective term for the archipelago is the Life of Saint Columba, a hagiography recording the missionary activities of the sixth century Irish monk Saint Columba among the peoples of modern Scotland. It was written in the late seventh century by Adomnán of Iona, an Irish monk living on the Inner Hebridean island. The collective term for the archipelago used within this work is Oceani Insulae meaning "Islands of the Ocean" (Book 2, 46 in the Sharpe edition = Book 2, 47 in Reeves edition), it is used sparingly and no Priteni-derived collective reference is made.

Another early native source to use a collective term is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum of Bede written in the early eighth century. The collective term for the archipelago used within this work is insularum meaning "islands" (Book 1, 8) and it too is used sparingly. He stated that Britain "studies and confesses one and the same knowledge of the highest truth in the tongues of five nations, namely the Angles, the Britons, the Scots, the Picts, and the Latins", distinguishing between the Brythonic languages of the "ancient Britons" or Old Welsh speakers and other language groups.

Early Celtic, Saxon and Viking kingdoms such as Rheged, Strathclyde and Wessex amalgamated, leading to the formation of Scotland, England and Wales. In Norman Ireland, local lords gained considerable autonomy from the Lordship of Ireland until it became the Kingdom of Ireland under direct English rule.

Renaissance mapmakers

Ortelius: map of Ireland from 1573 titled Eryn. Hiberniae Britannicae Insulae Nova Descriptio Irlandt.
Ortelius: map of Ireland from 1573 titled Eryn. Hiberniae Britannicae Insulae Nova Descriptio Irlandt.

Continental mapmakers Gerardus Mercator ( 1512), Balthasar Moretus ( 1624), Giovanni Magini ( 1596), Abraham Ortelius ( 1570) and Sebastian Munster ( 1550) produced maps bearing the term "British Isles". Ortelius makes clear his understanding that England, Scotland and Ireland were politically separate in 1570 by the full title of his map: "Angliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae, sive Britannicar. insularum descriptio" which translates as "a description of England, Scotland and Ireland, or the British Isles", additionally many maps from this period show Wales and Cornwall as separate nations, most notably those of Mercator.

Evolution of kingdoms and states

A timeline of states in the British Isles. (Formally, Ireland continues to exist, but the term "Republic of Ireland" is more widely used).
A timeline of states in the British Isles. (Formally, Ireland continues to exist, but the term "Republic of Ireland" is more widely used).

The diagram on the right gives an indication of the further evolution of kingdoms and states. In 1603 the Scottish King James VI inherited the English throne as "James I of England". He styled himself as James I of Great Britain, although both states retained their sovereignty and independent parliaments, the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England. The 1707 Act of Union united England and Scotland in the United Kingdom of Great Britain under the Parliament of Great Britain, then in 1800 Ireland was brought under British government control by the Act of Union creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Irish unrest culminated in the Irish War of Independence and the 1922 separation of the Irish Free State which later became the Republic of Ireland. The mostly Protestant northeast continued to be part of what was now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

British overseas territories such as Bermuda, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, the Falkland Islands, and the British Antarctic Territory have (or have had) various relationships with the UK. The Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) is a loose confederation of nations roughly corresponding to the former British Empire, mostly for economic co-operation, formalised in 1931. (This has no connection with the Commonwealth of England and The Protectorate which were short-lived republics replacing the previous kingdoms during the Interregnum ( 1649 - 1660).)


The adjectives used to describe the contents and attributes of the various constituent parts of the British Isles also cause confusion.

British is generally used to refer to the United Kingdom. However, in a specifically physical geographical sense, British is used to refer to the island of Great Britain. The cumbersome adjective Great British is very rarely used to refer to Great Britain, other than to contrive a pun on the word great, as in "Great British Food".

Irish, in a political sense, is used to refer to the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland, as a constituent part of the United Kingdom, would be included within the umbrella of the political term British, though many unionists in Northern Ireland would also consider themselves Irish in a geographical sense. In order to be more specific, Northern Irish is therefore in common usage. The term Ulster can also be used as an adjective (e.g. " Royal Ulster Constabulary"), but this is more likely to be used by Unionists and has political connotations in the same fashion as its use as a proper noun (because only six of the traditional nine counties of Ulster, namely Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, are included in Northern Ireland with the remaining three counties Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan forming part of the Republic). Likewise, Nationalists might describe, say, a lake in Northern Ireland as Irish. However, some Nationalists might attribute what they see as less attractive aspects of Northern Ireland to Britain or even to England (e.g. "The Northern Ireland squad is an English football team").

Note that the geographical term "Irish Sea" thus far appears to have escaped political connotations, even though territorial control of the waters of the Irish Sea is divided between both the Republic of Ireland and the UK, and also includes a British Crown dependency, the Isle of Man — as yet there appears to be no controversy with the term’s usage to mirror that of "British Isles".

The "Northern" in "Northern Ireland" is not completely accurate. A large portion of Northern Ireland lies to the south of County Donegal, which is in the Republic. The northern tip of the island, Malin Head, is on Donegal's Inishowen Peninsula.

Scottish, English and Welsh are self-explanatory but the term English is sometimes used to mean British as well.

Problems with use of terms

There is considerable sensitivity about some of the terms, particularly in relation to Ireland.

British Isles

The term British Isles itself can be considered irritating or offensive by those who find that the association of the term British with the United Kingdom leads to a mistaken presumption that the Republic of Ireland is still in some way under British rule, or think that it implies that the UK has continuing territorial claims to that country. No branch of the Irish government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Embassy in London, uses the term, although it is on occasion used in a geographical sense in Irish parliamentary debates. In Northern Ireland, nationalists reject the term and use these islands as an alternative, whereas unionists, when countering nationalist insistence on the territorial integrity of the island of Ireland, change the geographical frame of reference to that of the whole archipelago of what they call the British Isles.

Contemporary usage of the term "The British Isles" is also often inconsistent and confusing. Even highly regarded major media sources like the BBC and The Times use the term "The British Isles" in widely varied ways. Using the dictionary definition the term refers to the whole of Ireland and Great Britain as well as the surrounding islands. However, it is sometimes used as being identical to the UK, i.e. covering only a part of the island of Ireland while in other contexts it is used to refer to Great Britain and the surrounding islands but excluding the island of Ireland entirely.

There have been several suggestions for replacements for the term British Isles. Although there is no single accepted replacement, both Great Britain and Ireland and The British Isles and Ireland are widely used. .


The term Ireland is also a matter of sensitivity. It is the official name of the Republic of Ireland as well as being a geographical term for the whole island. In Northern Ireland, Irishness is a highly contested identity, with fundamentally different perceptions between unionists who perceive themselves as being both British and Irish, and nationalists who consider both communities to be part of the Irish nation.

Further information

Isle of Man and Channel Islands

The Isle of Man and the two bailiwicks of the Channel Islands are Crown Dependencies; that is, non-sovereign nations, self-governing but whose sovereignty is held by the British Crown. They control their own politics, but not their defence. They are not part of the United Kingdom nor part of the European Union.

  • The Isle of Man is part of the British Isles, situated in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland.
  • The Channel Islands consist politically of two self-governing bailiwicks: the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey. They are the remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, which was once in personal union with the Kingdom of England. They are sometimes, despite their location next to mainland France, considered part of the British Isles.

Celtic names

The Celtic languages in the region — Cornish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Manx— each have names for the various countries and subdivisions of the British Isles.

Some of the above are:

Cornish: Pow an Sawson, Pow Saws ('Saxon country'), Inglond
Irish: Sasana ('Saxony')
Manx: Sostyn ('Saxony')
Scottish Gaelic: Sasainn ('Saxony')
Welsh: Lloegr
Cornish: Alban, Scotlond
Irish: Albain
Manx: Nalbin
Scottish Gaelic: Alba
Welsh: Yr Alban
Cornish: Kembra
Irish: An Bhreatain Bheag ('Little Britain')
Manx: Bretin
Scottish Gaelic: A' Chuimrigh
Welsh: Cymru
Cornish: Kernow
Irish: Corn na Breataine, An Chorn
Manx: Yn Chorn
Scottish Gaelic: A' Chòrn
Welsh: Cernyw
Cornish: Wordhen, Ywerdhon
Irish: Éire, Éirinn
Manx: Nerin
Scottish Gaelic: Èirinn
Welsh: Iwerddon
Republic of Ireland
Cornish: Republyk Wordhen
Irish: Poblacht na hÉireann
Manx: Pobblaght Nerin
Scottish Gaelic: Poblachd na h-Èirinn
Welsh: Gweriniaeth Iwerddon
Northern Ireland
Cornish: Wordhen North
Irish: Tuaisceart Éireann, Tuaisceart na hÉireann
Manx: Nerin Twoaie
Scottish Gaelic: Èirinn a Tuath
Welsh: Gogledd Iwerddon

Note: In Irish there are actually several terms for Northern Ireland: An Tuaisceart, meaning "the North", is usually used, but a more recent term for official use is Tuaisceart Éireann. Ulaidh, the Irish word for Ulster, is also sometimes used, though the traditional region of Ulster also includes 3 counties which are not included in the political region of Northern Ireland. Ironically the most northern point in Ireland is 'down South', that is ruled from Dublin, not London.

The English word Welsh is from a common Germanic root meaning "foreigner" ( cognate with Wallonia and Wallachia, and also cognate with the word used in Mediaeval German to refer to the French and Italians). The English names Albion and Albany are related to Alba and used poetically for either England or Scotland, or the whole island of Great Britain. English Erin is a poetic name for Ireland derived from Éire (or rather, from its dative form Éirinn)

The term "Oileáin Bhriotanacha" for 'British Isles' in the Irish language

In Irish, the term Oileáin Bhriotanacha is attested as a version of the English term 'British Isles'. The 1937 book Tír-Eóluíocht na h-Éireann ('The Geography of Ireland') by T. J. Dunne, translated by Toirdhealbhach Ó Raithbheartaigh and published in Dublin by the Government Publications Office, states: Tá Éire ar cheann de na h-oileáin a dtugar na h-Oileáin Bhreataineacha ortha agus atá ar an taobh Thiar-Thuaidh de'n Eóraip. Tá siad tuairim a's ar chúig mhíle oileán ar fad ann. (Oileánradh an t-ainm a bheirtear ar áit ar bith i n-a bhfuil a lán oileán agus iad i n-aice a chéile mar seo.) Éire agus an Bhreatain Mhór (Sasain, an Bhreatain Bheag, agus Alba) an dá oileán is mó de na h-Oileáin Bhreataineacha. 'Ireland is one of the islands which are called the British Isles and which are on the North-Western side of Europe. It is thought that there are five thousand islands in total there. (Archipelago is the name which is borne by a place in which there are many islands next to each other like these.) Ireland and Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) are the two largest islands of the British Isles.'

Other terms in the Irish language

Dineen's 1927 Irish-English dictionary gives Oileáin Iarthair Eorpa 'the British or West European Isles'. Most often the term is avoided and Éire agus an Bhreatain is used, though this ignores the thousands of small islands.


The island of Rockall is a disputed territory in the Atlantic Ocean. It is a small, uninhabited island lying some 301.4 km (187.3 miles) west of St Kilda (Outer Hebrides) and 424 km (229.1 miles) north-west of Ireland. It is claimed by the United Kingdom (as part of the Isle of Harris), whilst its surrounding continental shelf (but not the island itself) is claimed by the Republic of Ireland, Iceland and Denmark (through the Faroe Islands). Its remote position, however, means that it is open to question whether or not, geographically, it belongs to the British Isles. In any event The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, states Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.


Blighty is a slang word for Britain derived from the Hindustani word bilāyatī ("foreign"). Depending on the user, it is meant either affectionately or archly. It was often used by British soldiers abroad in the First World War to refer to home.


The term "Europe" may be used in one of several different contexts by British people; either to refer to the whole of the European continent, to refer to only to Mainland Europe, sometimes called "continental Europe" or simply "the Continent" by some people in the archipelago — as in the apocryphal newspaper headlining "Fog shrouds Channel, continent cut off."

Europe and the adjective European may also be used in reference to the European Union, particularly in a derogative context such as "The new regulations handed out by Europe".

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