For a relatively small area, we sure have a lot of names for the British Isles in all their various combinations. Look, I know it can be confusing – and I’ll be the first to admit that the majority of us don’t really know the difference ourselves. But, if you want to fit in and not cause offense on your trip to this side of the pond, it makes sense to clarify a few key points – if anything, to ensure that you do not end up coming across as ignorant or rude as the guy I once met in an American bar who insisted that “England own Ireland, right?” *facepalm*
So, let’s begin…
England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland (AKA the Republic of Ireland)
These are all individual countries. Although in some languages ‘English’ is used in an all-encompassing manner, this can be pretty offensive to people who are not English. Each nation has its own unique traditions, cultural identity, history and in some cases language,and this should be recognized.
Ok, so this is where things get trickier. The UK (or to use its full name, ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ – catchy, eh?) is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The UK is technically speaking not a country, but a sovereign state. What this means in practice is essentially there is one UK Government, which is based in London, as well as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish national assemblies, which have certain amounts of legislative power in those regions. This is why sometimes laws and regulations will vary between countries (for example, same-sex marriage is currently only legal in England and Wales). To give a crude analogy: if the UK is like the USA, then the countries are like states. Each has a certain amount of power to run its own affairs, but ultimately the UK is in charge.
Just to confuse the issue further, it’s worth mentioning that on 18th September this year, Scotland will hold a referendum in which Scottish citizens can vote on whether or not they wish for Scotland to remain in the UK, or to become independent. Watch this space!
Great Britain is the physical island on which you’ll find England, Wales and Scotland. The term is often used interchangeably with the UK, but this is incorrect because it does not include Northern Ireland.
Ok, so Ireland has two meanings: in geographic terms, it is the island that comprises the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In political terms, it is shorthand for the Republic of Ireland.
It is very important to recognize that the Republic of Ireland is not part of the UK, and it is not British – the clue is in the name! There was a long and bloody conflict about this in the not-too-distant past (euphemistically referred to as ‘the troubles’), and it is still a sensitive subject for many.
Again, this term is often used interchangeably with ‘the UK’ or ‘Great Britain’, but in fact it only really refers to the geographic region covering England and Wales. The name has its origins in the invading Romans’ name for the area – ‘Britannia’. However, the Romans never got past Hadrian’s Wall, and so Scotland is not included.
The British Isles
This is another purely geographical term, and refers to Great Britain, the island of Ireland and a whole bunch of small islands nearby, including Anglesey and the Isle of Man (between Great Britain and Ireland), the Channel Islands (between Great Britain and France), and Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland (to the north of Scotland). Overall, there are 136 permanently inhabited islands in this group.
So there you have it – don’t worry if you get confused and happy traveling!