England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Isles … these are terms that cause confusion even among British people, so don’t feel too bad if you don’t know the difference. To give you a better understanding of when to use each word or phrase, it’s easiest if we look at the situation from two different angles: geographical and political.
The following satellite picture shows the British Isles (ignore France in the bottom right!). In total, there are over 6,000 islands in the British Isles. The two biggest islands are called Ireland (on the left) and Great Britain (on the right).
The geographical differences are pretty simple. The political explanations are where it gets a bit more complicated.
First, let’s look at the island of Ireland.
When we’re talking geographically, the entire island is called Ireland. However, two different political states run different parts of the island. The area in green is the sovereign state known as the Republic of Ireland. To make matters more confusing, people usually refer to this state as just Ireland. In other words, when you hear someone say Ireland, they could be talking about the entire island or just the area in green.
The area in red is Northern Ireland. It belongs to a different sovereign state, which we’ll discuss now.
In the map below, the area marked in yellow is the sovereign state commonly called the United Kingdom. Often this state is referred to as the UK, although the official name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. All of these names are correct, but for ease of reference, we will call this place the UK.
As you can see, the UK consists of one big island (Great Britain), a small part of the second biggest island (Northern Ireland), and thousands of smaller islands. The UK is a sovereign state, so whenever you see it represented at the United Nations, or read an article about Theresa May being the leader of the UK, the yellow area in the above map is the place people are talking about.
Still with us? Next, we’ll discuss the historic nations of England, Scotland, and Wales. Let’s look at the big island (Great Britain) again:
England, the largest region, is shown in green. The second largest area is Scotland (purple), and the smallest of the three is Wales (red). Many years ago, they were separate countries, but nowadays they form part of the union called the UK (along with Northern Ireland). Although politically the four historic countries currently have very little power, this may change in the future if one (or more) of them becomes independent.
One thing that confuses people is the inconsistency when it comes to sport. Although the British Isles has only 2 sovereign states (the UK and the Republic of Ireland), they have 5 different teams represent them in international soccer tournaments (Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England). In rugby, there are 4 teams: Ireland (the geographical entity), Scotland, Wales, and England. While in the Olympics, there are 2 different nations: Ireland and Great Britain. Notice anything strange about the countries represented in the Olympics? Northern Ireland is missing! Athletes from Northern Ireland can choose to represent either Ireland or Great Britain.
Lastly, what about the word Britain? Britain is the oldest known term for the area we’ve been discussing (the word’s history goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece), but nowadays it has no official geographical or political meaning. The word is still used commonly by Brits (people from Britain, also called Britons) to describe either the UK or Great Britain.