UK, Great Britain, British Isles – the difference explained
In a brand new series, comedian Al Murray is trying to get to the bottom of an issue that inhabitants of this fair isle have often pondered - Why Does Everyone Hate the English? Is it because of the Empire, because of our island mentality, or maybe it's just because people can't work out what to call us.
If you've ever been confused about the difference between England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom but were too embarrassed to ask, keep on reading and don't worry, even great minds have found it confusing.
It’s not just people from other countries who can get confused – many Brits can also get muddled about the differences between the various terms for these islands. So, can 'UK' and 'Great Britain' be used interchangeably (hint: no) and just what are the 'British Isles' anyway?
Great Britain is most definitely NOT just another way of referring to the United Kingdom, even if many people will probably continue to do just that for as long as these islands exist. Great Britain isn’t even a country. The phrase simply refers to the large land mass made up of the constituent countries of Scotland, England and Wales, including their associated islands such as the Isle of Wight and Anglesey. Importantly, the term does not encompass any of the island of Ireland. This is why the use of the phrase 'Team GB' in the Olympics has been controversial, with some calling for it to be changed to 'Team UK' because of the presence of athletes from Northern Ireland.
The United Kingdom
The UK refers to the sovereign state made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Geographically speaking, it is the land mass known as Great Britain, along with the north-eastern segment of the island of Ireland.
The last major shift in the shape of the UK occurred back in the early 20s, when much of the island of Ireland broke away to become the Irish Free State, which would eventually evolve into the Republic of Ireland. To some across the world (and to the irritation of many in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), England itself has long been synonymous with the UK as a whole. This is probably because it’s the largest country in the UK, and its capital – London – also happens to be the capital of the UK as a whole.
Just to add another layer of ambiguity, there’s also the popular phrase “the British Isles”. How does this square with the terms above? It’s actually pretty easy to remember: the British Isles is all of it.
Rather than being a political term, it’s purely geographical and covers all the land masses of this part of the world: the main island of Great Britain and its associated islands, the island of Ireland (that is to say, both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), and the Isle of Man. Which, by the way, isn’t part of the UK. Allow us to elaborate…