Sometimes we use the words ‘United Kingdom’, ‘Great Britain’ and ‘England’ as if they all meant the same thing.  But they don’t.  And you can actually offend many people in the UK by calling them ‘English’ or calling their country ‘England’.  Here’s why.


I don’t mean to be geeky, but the ‘United Kingdom’ is actually called….

We all are just so used to saying ‘the United Kingdom’ or ‘the UK’ that most of us actually forget that the full and official name of the country we’re talking about is: The ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.

Why am I starting with this?  Well, if you look closely at the UK’s full name, you can see that it’s made up of:

  • Great Britain


  • Northern Ireland

Now let’s look at why this actually matters.


‘Great Britain’ includes most of the UK

Many of us tend to say ‘Great Britain’ or simply ‘Britain’ when talking about the UK.  But strictly speaking that’s incorrect. This is because Great Britain includes most of the UK, but it doesn’t include Northern Ireland.

To be precise, Great Britain is an island that consists of:

  • England
  • Scotland
  • Wales
out there, I should mention that Great Britain also includes hundreds of smaller islands.

And because there may be some geographers reading this, I should mention that Great Britain also includes hundreds of smaller islands.


England exists of course but it’s not a state

The UK is a sovereign state, that is recognised by international law.  So, in the international system, it has the same recognition and status as any other independent state, for example, Australia, Germany, Pakistan or Zambia.

England is not an independent state.  It’s the largest country in the United Kingdom. It covers about two-thirds of the island of Great Britain and has a population of about 53 million people.

England has two borders – one with Scotland to the north, and one with Wales to the west. England’s capital, London, is as you know also the capital of the United Kingdom.  This is where the national parliament of the UK is, Westminster – otherwise famous in the world for Big Ben.

Trivia alert: Big Ben is the name not of the clock itself, but of its bell.


Scotland: Aren’t we glad it’s still part of the UK

Scotland is located to the north of England and is the second largest country in the UK.  It  has a population of about 5 million and its capital city is Edinburgh – a wonderful place, make sure to visit (or study there).

Scotland has its own parliament in which the Scottish National Party has held an overall majority since 2011.  The SNP wants Scotland to leave the UK but to stay in the EU.

In September 2014 the Scottish people were given the vote: Should Scotland should leave the UK and become an independent country? Of course, it was up to the Scottish voters to decide, but the rest of the UK (myself included) breathed a sigh of relief over 55% of votes decided Scotland would stay – for now.

Update on 24 June 2016:  Now that the UK, or rather mostly people in England and Wales, have voted for Brexit, there’s already talk of a second Scottish Independence Referendum.  That’s because most Scottish voters had wanted to stay in the EU.


Have you heard of ‘Cymru’? That’s ‘Wales’ in Welsh.

English Welsh Sign Welcome to Wales

Wales is the smallest country in Britain and is located to the west of England.  It has a population of around 3 million and the capital city is Cardiff – which is also the largest city in Wales, but still quite small with around 320,000 inhabitants.

Again, whilst not an independent state, Wales does have its own parliament: The Welsh National Assembly.  Wales also has two official languages, English and Welsh, but on a day to day basis you can get by with English.  The 2011 census shows that overall just under 20% of people in Wales speak Welsh, but it can vary a lot depending on location.


Northern Ireland is located on a separate island

Snow Patrol Album Cover Final Straw

As mentioned earlier, Northern Ireland is not part of Britain but it is part of the UK.  That’s despite the fact that Northern Ireland doesn’t share a border with the UK – it’s located on a different island and shares a border with the ‘Republic of Ireland’.

With about 1.8 million inhabitants, Northern Ireland is the smallest member of the UK. Its capital city is Belfast – yep, exactly, this is where the Titanic was built.

More trivia: The author of the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, C. S. Lewis, was from Belfast, as was football legend George Best.  And, if, like me, you’re a Snow Patrol fan, you’ll know they have their origins in Northern Ireland (though they formed as a band while studying at the University of Dundee, Scotland).


So what’s the history behind it all?

Act of Union 1707 England Scotland

I did take history modules as part of my undergraduate degree but that doesn’t qualify me as a historian.  However, as far as I understand this is roughly the history of the UK:

  • 1536 – 1543: Acts of Union of England and Wales
  • 1707: The Kingdom of England (including Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland form a union. Together they become a sovereign state called the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’.
  • 1801: The Kingdom of Great Britain enters a union with a neighbouring island, the Kingdom of Ireland (modern day Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland).  Together, they become a sovereign state that is named the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’.
  • 1922: Most of Ireland leaves the Kingdom of Great Britain. Only one province in the north-east of the country, today known as Northern Ireland, remains part of the Kingdom of Britain.  The UK changes its name to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The rest of Ireland forms an independent, sovereign state called the ‘Republic of Ireland’. The Republic of Ireland is not part of the UK.


Is it the ‘Union Flag’ or the ‘Union Jack’?

The UK’s flag is officially called the ‘Union Flag’.  However, its popular name is the ‘Union Jack’.

The flag’s design combines the crosses of the national flags of England (Red Cross of Saint George), Scotland (White Cross from Saint Andrew) and Northern Ireland (Red Cross from Saint Patrick).

The only flag that is not part of the Union Jack is the flag of Wales.  This is because there had already been an Act of Union between England and Wales, so Wales was not an independent Kingdom when the successive unions were formed.  On the other hand, Scotland and Ireland, whose flags are represented, were.


When to use the term ‘British’

The term ‘British’ is used to talk about someone or something from Great Britain or from the United Kingdom.

You can use this term to describe people, identity, culture, language, food, politics – almost anything – when you’re not talking specifically about something or someone English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish.

But England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own unique history, culture, traditions and national identity – which they value and preserve.  As mentioned above, Wales also has a second official language, Welsh, in addition to English.

Whereas most people in the UK may not have a problem being referred to as ‘British’, you may come across some people that do.  I guess you’ll be able to figure out what words to use or avoid by observing how individuals talk about their identity, origin and ethnicity – and also about politics.


Northern Ireland:  ‘Irish’ or ‘British’?

Although Northern Ireland is not a part of the island of Great Britain, it’s still legally British, as it is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

However, whilst many people in Northern Ireland consider themselves ‘British’, many others identify themselves as ‘Irish’.  Yet others prefer to call themselves ‘Northern Irish’.   I personally  think ‘Northern Irish’ is a good, neutral term to use if you’re unsure – it’s unlikely to offend anyone.

Final Thoughts

The UK is an officially recognised state that includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.   Great Britain doesn’t include Northern Ireland, but still all citizens of the UK, including those in Northern Ireland, are  legally ‘British’.

Having said this, many UK citizens are proud of their national identity in addition to their shared British identity.  To many,  being ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Northern Irish’ may even come first, before being ‘British’.

What’s interesting is that for ethnic minorities in the UK it may the opposite. Research often shows that British citizens in the largest ethnic minority groups are more likely to consider themselves British, as opposed to English, for example.

As you can see, the UK is a diverse country.  If you want to avoid inadvertently offending people, try not to use the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ when talking about everything and everyone in the UK.

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