What’s the Difference Between Great Britain and the United Kingdom?

Have you ever wondered how you are supposed to refer to that nation that is home to Queen Elizabeth II? Are you supposed to call it England? Great Britain? The United Kingdom? Those who live there may think they have it all figured out, but the rest of us can still get confused. If you count yourself among the puzzled, be confounded no longer. Let’s take a look at the difference between the different names attributed to the land where London rests.

Admittedly, the whole concept for this article arose from the writers of Commonplace Fun Facts never quite knowing how to tag an article that mentions Great Britain/United Kingdom/etc. At first glance, it appears that the proper name is the United Kingdom, yet its citizens call themselves “British,” not “United Kingdomers.”

Technically, the country’s official name is the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” It consists of four component countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. When referring to all four entities, the appropriate terminology is “United Kingdom” or “UK” for short.

That is why it is inappropriate to refer to the nation as “England.” England is just one of the component countries. If your plane lands in Glasgow, you haven’t visited England, any more than taking a trip to New York means that you have seen California.

So why does Northern Ireland get singled out? Why isn’t it enough to say “United Kingdom of Great Britain”? The United Kingdom consists of several islands. Great Britain is the name of the largest of them. On it, you will find England, Scotland, and Wales, and together, they also make up the political entity of Great Britain. Just to complicate things a little, there are also some islands such as Scotland’s Isle of Skye or England’s Isle of Wight, which are not part of the island of Great Britain but are considered part of the political entity of Great Britain, since they belong to countries that are predominantly in Great Britain. (Confused yet?)

Northern Ireland, in contrast, is located on a completely different island than Great Britain. Ireland is the second-largest island of the British Isles. The northern part of the island is part of the United Kingdom, and it is called “Northern Ireland.” The southern part of the island is the “Republic of Ireland,” which is part of the island of Ireland but is not part of the United Kingdom. Neither country is part of Great Britain. Thus, if you are referencing your visit to the Scottish highlands, it is appropriate to say that you were in Great Britain. If your adventures also take you over to Northern Ireland, you should not lump that sightseeing under the “Great Britain” category, but you can say that it was part of your visit to the United Kingdom. If you only visit the Republic of Ireland, then you never made it to the UK or to Great Britain. One notable exception to all of this is found in the Olympic team from the United Kingdom. It includes athletes from Northern Ireland, so it should be known as “Team UK.” Instead, they call themselves “Team GB.” Go figure.

If this isn’t complicated enough, we should also note the difference between the British Isles and the British Islands.

The “British Isles” is the collective name for as many as 6,000 smaller islands that surround Great Britain and Ireland. It is not a political entity and simply describes a geographic region. Under this definition, the Republic of Ireland, although not part of the United Kingdom or Great Britain, is located in the British Isles since the island of Ireland falls within that category.

Distinct from the British Isles are the British Islands. This a legally-defined term, referring to the United Kingdom and its three self-governing Crown Dependencies: the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Jersey, and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which are not part of the United Kingdom but are geographically close to it. The British Islands do not include the Republic of Ireland, nor do they include any of the islands under the control of the United Kingdom that are more distant, such as the Falkland Islands.

Oops… We had to mention the Falkland Islands. That brings up one more important fact. At one time London was the capital of an empire that extended around the world. The UK still maintains political control over fourteen territories around the world. If you take a trip to Bermuda, you are visiting a sovereign, independent country — sort of. The Parliament of the United Kingdom is ultimately responsible for its security, and it claims Queen Elizabeth II as its sovereign. It is not part of the United Kingdom, but the United Kingdom has responsibility for it. It is technically a British Overseas Territory, even though it is not part of Great Britain, the British Isles, or the British Islands.

Territories under the control of the United Kingdom.

We must also discuss the Commonwealth of Nations. This consists of 54 countries that voluntarily agree to cooperate in matters of trade, immigration, and other matters. Sixteen of these countries choose to share the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as their head of state. These sixteen nations are distinct and equal legal entities – the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. So, if you are a citizen of Malaysia, you are part of the Commonwealth of Nations, but you don’t hold any allegiance to the British crown. If you are a citizen of Papua New Guinea, however, you are part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and you do acknowledge the Queen as your head of state, but you are not part of the United Kingdom, Great Britain, the British Isles, the British Islands, and are not a British Overseas Territory.

Lastly, we have to mention the term “Britain” or “Britannia.” The British Navy has long used the song “Rule Britannia” as a rallying anthem. What does that refer to? Technically, the last time a place called “Britannia” existed as a political entity was during the Roman Empire, which ended in A.D. 476. “Britain” or “Britannia” is the name of the Roman-conquered territory of the island of Great Britain. It was called “Britannia Major” to distinguish it from the area of France now called Brittany, which the Romans called “Britannia Minor.” Scotland, alone, among the inhabitants of the island of Great Britain, was able to fend off the Romans and never fell under Roman rule. If you visit Scotland, therefore, you have visited both the island and political entity of Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Isles, the British Islands, and the Commonwealth of Nations, but not Britannia.

Oh… and we should also point out that in Scotland, the Queen is Elizabeth, not Elizabeth II since it was not part of the United Kingdom during the reign of the first one.

Aren’t you glad we got that all cleared up?

Read more fun facts about royalty.

Read more fun facts about geography.

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