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Britain or UK?

August 11, 2017

A couple of weeks ago Donald Trump remarked that he seldom heard the word Britain used now; everybody says the UK instead. I don’t normally find myself in agreement with Trump and I have no idea what the context of his remark was, but I have to say that he got this one right. I’m teaching English to a group of Chinese students at the University of Greenwich this summer, and whenever they refer to our beloved land they call it the UK. And when one has the tiresome task of scrolling down on websites to enter one’s country, the option is invariably given as United Kingdom, not as Britain or Great Britain.

There has been uncertainty about what we should call our nation for a long time. George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn (1940) that we have six different names for it: “England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion”. Of course these names don’t all mean exactly the same thing. England is only part of the whole; Great Britain is England, Wales and Scotland; the United Kingdom is Great Britain plus Northern Ireland; the British Isles is a geographical entity which includes the whole of Ireland. Albion (although I’ve never actually heard this one used seriously) refers to England alone; the name supposedly derives from the white cliffs of Dover (albus being Latin for “white”).

My favourite term is Britain. “Britain” doesn’t really exist as a political or a geographical entity, but I like the fact that it is inclusive without being too strictly defined. I am happy to describe myself as British, as I’m half-English and half-Welsh.  Sadly one does hear Britain less often now. I don’t particularly like the term UK, and especially not in the ghastly phrase “UK plc”, but it seems to be winning.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Isn’t the difference that U.K. includes Northern Ireland but (Great) Britain is England, Scotland and Wales?

    • Yes – I say that in the post! (“Great Britain is England, Wales and Scotland; the United Kingdom is Great Britain plus Northern Ireland”).

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Sorry about that Brandon. The danger of posting after the pub again.
    Albion mainly seems to be used in the perjorative sense “perfidious Albion” or football West Bromwich, Brighton & Hove, etc. The old name for Scotland “Alba” is related.

  3. No worries. Yes, perfidious Albion – that is what the French used to call us, isn’t it? As for WBA, I wonder how many Baggies fans actually know what it means…

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    Yes; the phrase has been traced back to the 13th C.
    WBA used to be more frequently called the Throstles (a Midlands word for a thrush which is still on their badge) but Baggies is almost exclusively used now.

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